This page consists of comments on the relatively unimportant but irritating subject of misuse and abuse of the English language. It is an offshoot/extension of my more general page of thoughts about a variety of (mainly political) subjects. My comments are based on the principle that English is the language used by well-educated English people in England. While a language must be a living, developing thing, it does have rules which generally exist to make communication (which is, after all, the object of language) clear. I expanded on this topic in the 15th October 2007 entry below.
The entries are, like a blog, in date order, with the most recent entries first.
Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar, Grammar
Punctuation, Punctuation, Punctuation
Spelling, Spelling, Spelling
Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary
|Appealing 15th January 2010|
|Debasement of the English language 15th October 2007|
|Debasement of the English language 17th October 2007|
|Debasement of the English language 20th October 2007|
|Debasement of the English language 8th November 2007|
|Euphemisms 10th November 2007|
|Free 18th May 2008|
|Giving gifts 14th December 2007|
|Hope 18th May 2008|
|Meetings 5th January 2010|
|Meetings 15th January 2010|
|Misuse of English 12th December 2007|
|More or less 16th February 2010|
|Names of cities and countries 1st September 2007|
|Tenses 11th November 2007|
16th February 2010
Too many people have in recent years got into the habit of using such phrases as "five time more than" or "five times bigger than" when they actually mean "five times as many as" or "five times as big as". Strictly speaking, the phrase "five times bigger than" means the same as "six times as big as", but because it is so frequently misused it is for practical purposes ambiguous. Since it is totally unnecessary anyway, it would be far better avoided altogether.
Even worse is the all too common usage such as "five times less than", which is self-contradictory and therefore completely meaningless. "Five times" indicates multiplication, and so an increase, which is completely incompatible with the following word "less". If what is meant is "One fifth as many", why not say that so we can all understand what is meant without needing to attempt to guess at the hidden meaning?
15th January 2010
5th January 2010
18th May 2008
The first of those definitions specifies the subject of this item, although much of what I have to say applies equally to other languages. The second has the consequence that in order to be understood the language used should be clear. Clarity is achieved not only by the use of simple words and sentence structures but also by consistent use of correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and word meanings.
A new approach to writing was introduced in English schools in the 1960s and 1970s, and has persisted to a slightly reduced extent since. It was considered that what mattered when a child was writing was his/her creativity, and it was held that insistence on correct spelling, grammar and punctuation hindered this all-important creativity, and was therefore to be deplored. Those children are now parents themselves, and have consequently brought this way of thinking into the home as well as the school. When one considers that the vast majority of the writing done by all except professional writers is not creative writing but factual material such as technical reports, job applications, complaints to suppliers of goods and services, and the like, it can be seen what nonsense this is, quite apart from the fact that it does not matter how good someone's creativity may be if the result is unreadable or, more frequently, ambiguous, because of errors of these kinds.
The rules of English grammar and punctuation are precise and entirely logical. There is no good reason why everyone of reasonably normal ability should not have mastered them fully before leaving school, and this is far more important than any amount of "creativity". English spelling, on the other hand, is not fully logical; there are plenty of rules to help, but with exceptions to just about all of them. Learning spelling by rote is therefore necessary to some extent for most people, although wide reading of suitable material is probably as important. "Suitable" in this context means it must, of course, have perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation, but also must be interesting to the reader and of a level of difficulty (in terms of comprehension) appropriate to the reader. There are those who will maintain that usually the context makes the meaning clear despite errors of all these types, and no doubt they are sometimes right. However, errors of this kind always make reading more difficult than it need be, and failure to learn and habitually use the correct form means that some writing will not be at all clear. In job applications it can be sufficient to lose the job opportunity even if the meaning is perfectly clear.
Word meanings are a more difficult area, since no living language can be entirely stagnant. New words are continually needed as new things and new concepts are invented. However, there can be no justification for replacing one perfectly adequate word with another which is already in use with a different meaning. This degrades the language, and makes reading older material difficult. Misuse of the word "gay" instead of "homosexual" is a good example of this, but euphemisms generally often come into this category. Another example is the misuse by the media of the word "billion" to mean "milliard". A billion is a million million, as the "bi-" prefix indicates, while a thousand million is a milliard.
No doubt someone will now find some typing errors on this page. At least I think I usually know what the correct form is, even if my keyboard sometimes shows symptoms of dyslexia! I make no claim to be an expert typist.
I have never understood why the media insist on attempting (often without success) to change the names they use for some countries and cities to correspond with the names used by, and sometimes changed by, the inhabitants, while inconsistently doing nothing of the kind with others. Why can they not accept that all countries, and many large cities, have English names which may not and need not bear any relation to the names used for those same places by the people who live there (and those people sensibly do not usually call our country by the name we use, but stick to their own language)? When the Chinese decided to rename their capital, the English media hastened to try to do the same, inventing the name Beijing instead of sticking to the English name, Peking. I notice they still call the country itself China! Ceylon they unnecessarily now call Sri Lanka, but why do they not call Germany "Deutschland", Switzerland "Helvetia", Finland "Suomi" and Albania "Shqiperia"? When did you last see or hear a newspaper or TV reporter refer to the city of Köln instead of using its English (and differently pronounced French) name of Cologne? Particularly silly is the name of Belarus they give to White Russia (if you look at Soviet era English maps you will see that name used) - the inhabitants do not use that name, because they do not use our alphabet, and the name they do use (approximately pronounced like "Byelaroos") is Russian for "White Russia"!
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