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Opinions of Sunday, 3 June 2007

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

English and Gobbledegook


These days, it is fashionable to pluralize things that hitherto could only be understood in the singular sense. So, we can comfortably talk of journalisms, instead journalism, to distinguish between the kind of journalistic practice delivered by a Financial Times columnist and a budding reporter from an under-resourced ethnic minority bi-weekly in New York, USA. It is understandable that we would expect different levels of quality from them, as we would their earnings. Their use of language may also be dictated by their respective house styles and their standing in industry.

Similarly, we have suddenly become used to Englishes, instead of the English Language. So, we have variations of the Queen’s language in Ghanaian English, Nigerian English, American English and French English: The brand spoken by people from francophone countries, where the definite article ‘The’ is often pronounced, or rather admirably mispronounced ‘Zhe’. The strong affinity that language has with culture often underlies the treatment of the English language in different locations. Register, collocation and pronunciation, differ from location to location, so does the premium we place on the rules of grammar. But English is ‘a definite language’ not ‘an indefinite one’: There are generally accepted standards that must be followed by the pupils of Tweapease LA Primary School, near Asuom in the Eastern region of Ghana, and the students of ST. Andrews University in Britain, where Prince William recently graduated.

A newspaper columnist in the UK was mindful of the different Englishes when he wrote that the bad copy that had accompanied a piece of advertisement in The Daily Mail, a UK based newspaper, must have been written by a non-native English speaker, ‘probably an African.’ I wrote a rejoinder to the editor, but it was not published, because perhaps, my English was worse than the advertisement copy. So, I was not surprised when the Canadian High Commission in London asked a Ghanaian who holds a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Ghana and a Master of Philosophy degree in Linguistics from Norway, to undertake an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examination, to prove his English ability. He is presently studying for a PhD at a prestigious London university, but the Commission still finds it necessary to ascertain that his English is good enough to survive as a killed worker in Canada.

This PhD student was treated better than me when I took my first job-one of those jobs- in England. My supervisor, a middle aged English widow, placed before me two pens: a blue and a red. She told me they were called pens, and they are tools for writing. She showed me where and when to use the red pen in the customer’s receipt books and when the blue was ideal. The lecture on the pens took about thirty minutes. An hour later, she came to test by knowledge of colours, by asking me to show her the red pen, by picking it up for her to see. She said I was a brilliant lad for getting it right. A week later, I wrote a report on an accident that had taken place at the work place while she was on holiday. She congratulated me on the report, but wondered if I hadn’t copied the language, like a template from another place. When she saw me reading fat law books from then, she grudgingly accepted that I was literate and nearly offered me herself as a present for being a ‘smashing bloke.’ Or may be she did offer herself after all, but I don’t think that is what we are discussing today. Of course, this forum is for adults.

Last week, two adults on this forum engaged one another in what appeared to be a very interesting ‘linguistic cyber altercation.’ Dr Kwame Okampah-Ahoofe and Miss (I suspect Owura) Nana Ama Obenewaa gave some of us very good English lessons. It was interesting that Ghanaweb readers diverted their attention from the substance of the important issue that Dr Okoampah-Ahoofe had eloquently discussed in his article: Tilting at Windmills, to the rather fantastic use of language by the gentlemen, especially Okoampah. That Okoampah is an accomplished writer, and I would believe, speaker of English, is as incontrovertible as the Christian belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ. I could say that he is one of the best (judging by consistency of style, punctuation and understanding of vocabulary) we have had on the forum for so long. I will not attempt to discuss what is right or wrong about the use of language, because people in London do not trust my knowledge of colours; they will foam at the mouth when they see me writing like a classmate of Noam Chomsky, one of the top three intellectuals in the world; the rest being Umberto Eco and Prof Richard Dawkins of Oxford University.

The thing with language is that, often when a man dares pick up his pen to comment or correct what others have written, he ends up making a few mistakes of his own. This has happened to me before. There are ‘linguistic Pharisees’ (those who see very far) who are always looking out for English users who suffer any kind of ‘grammatical diarrhea’. As soon as they smell anything foul, they will make you a Sadducee (Sad you see). And they are very unkind: They don’t tell you what to do to cure your diarrhea; they recommend lethal injection, to silence you forever. They revel in floccinaucinihilipilification: The act of contemptuously dismissing something as worthless. Did I mean to say they are ruthless? Then why don’t I use a simpler and more familiar word like ‘ruthless’, instead of this long ‘mega-syllabic’ flo whatever cation. It is, therefore, with great trepidation that I proceed to discuss the following areas of usage in our Ghanaian English.

So you don’t form the impression that I am too known (self-conceited or a smart aleck), let me start with the mistakes I have made so far in this article. No modern newspaper will publish this. Take a look at my opening paragraph. My second sentence is made up 39 words. Newspapers these days want to preserve space for advertisements, so they want reporters and feature writers to write simple and short sentences. The word advertorial: effective use of space for advertisements and editorial makes sense in media circles. The advertisements, rather than the sale of the paper, are what maintain most media houses. I could cut my words to 27 by saying: We talk of journalisms, instead of journalism, to differentiate a Financial Times columnist from a budding reporter from a poor ethnic minority bi-weekly in New York. Who doesn’t know that New York is in the United States? And what is ‘journalistic practice’? The sentence is about journalism, why repeat it? That is redundancy. 27 words will still be too much for some newspapers. Most papers restrict their word limit to 20, and at worst 32. This is important for the nose (the lead or the opening paragraph).

Now that I have taken the lead to talk about my own mistakes, let’s turn to other problem areas. Taken the lead, what is that? If two people intend going out and one of them decides to leave the other behind, because he is delaying, we would normally say: I am taking the lead. Well, this is not right. What we mean to say is: I am going ahead. However, if Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson are slugging it out in a 100 meter race, and Ben Johnson comes from behind to overtake Carl, he has taken the lead. This is the correction an English lecturer made when a student said to her girl friend (girlfriend, one word) in front of her office that he was taking the lead. The boy said he was completely ashamed that the lecturer had to correct him in the presence of his girlfriend.

When do we say somebody is completely ashamed and when do we say he is ashamed? I can’t imagine the comparative and the superlative forms of shame. You can’t only be a little bit pregnant; you are either pregnant or you are not. If you are ashamed, it means you feel disgraced. If you are not ashamed, then you don’t feel any sense of abuse or guilt. I am not comfortable with the prefixes we normally use to indicate the extent of certain feelings. It is just like saying something was completely destroyed. The moment something is destroyed, it means we can’t repair it. If we can repair it, then perhaps it damaged. So the Twin Towers were completely destroyed by the terrorists does not convey a more desperate sense of the destruction than the twin towers were destroyed. Many things come in degrees and sizes. Between a tea spoon (teaspoon, one word) and a table spoon (tablespoon, one word), we have another spoon called dessertspoon. It is comfortable to talk of sizes here than to create a mental picture of an intermediary between complete destruction and ‘moderate’ destruction.

Several years ago, say 17 or 18, when I was a secondary school boy, I read a letter that a girl had written to her step brother (stepbrother, one word) in my school. The girl had written to advise her brother to forgive her and accept her as a sister, so that the eyes of their enemies will die. This girl’s childish way of representing a thought in English exactly as it would appear in her mother tongue (transliteration) is not as unpardonable as the use of several above. The pronoun Several means not many; more than two, but certainly not as many as 17 or 18. I can’t confirm this, but it will come to your discomfiture to learn that you can only use several when you are talking of a number less than 12. Please don’t quote me on this; I am still checking.

Of course, I didn’t mean to use discomfiture: shocked and embarrassed. If you didn’t know this, (but I trust that you have always known this), you will only be shocked, not embarrassed. The sentence is also passive: It will come to your discomfiture … Why not use the usually preferred active form: You will be shocked to …..Discomfiture would be the word to use for the boy when he learnt we had discovered that the problem in his family had been caused by his incestuous relationship with his stepsister. What about the use of the adjective childish to describe the girl’s English? Was she being childish or childlike? What is immature about innocently making an English construction sound as terrible as a pornographic film in the Garden of Gethsemane? Is she as innocent as the little girl who asked me to stop eating Chinese fried rice, because I will change into a Chinese? She was really serious about it. ‘Uncle stop, uncle stop’, she said. In view of the fact that good English is important in official communication, it is essential that we pay attention to the language we speak. This sentence is sick in many ways. If anybody prefers In view of the fact that to a simple word like Because, then he would welcome the over-wordiness in considerable difficulty, close proximity, final outcome, past history and root cause. As if baptism didn’t mean anything to John the Baptist, we still hear He fell down, revert back and invited guests. When was the last time you saw something that had fallen and was still standing? So why do we say The man fell down? He fell. I would advise all the girls that if a young man came to you saying I have fallen for you, to mean he is interested in you, please do not hesitate to push him down. He is a twit who does not deserve your affections. Marry a baboon instead.

If I am at guest at a wedding, it means I was invited. If I was not invited but I managed to come all the same, I am still a guest. I am not less of a guest than those who were officially invited. When people, normally MC’s, say Mr. Chairman, invited guests, what exactly are they saying? Do they mean only the guests who were invited or they are referring to everybody apart from the organizers? I would rather goof invited guests than write Attached herewith for your attention and possible consideration. If something is attached, it means it is right here, so why waste our time by saying attached herewith? I would have to attend to something before I can consider it, so why say it is for my attention? I should know that. Once I would consider it, it means the possibility is already established. So what is the use of possible in the sentence? We have all seen or written official letters ending with: Counting on your usual cooperation. This sentence is like Zaccheus: He is got the money but something is not right-his height. Instead of going for height-enhancing designer shoes, as ex-president Chiluba of Zambia did, (He was found guilty in a court ruling recently), he climbed a tree. The sentence has no subject. Don’t put a tree in front of the continuous form of the verb counting, just add the pronoun We and the auxiliary verb Are, and we are sure to get cooperation from the recipient.

May be, you are not happy with me for writing these things, but you see, somebody has got to say it anyhow. Jean Annouil, the French political playwright who adopted the old Sophoclean play: Antigone, knew this when he said: ‘‘What a man can do, a man ought to do.’’ He didn’t say what a man can do very well; he ought to do it well. There are many grammatical errors I have made in this article. If any ‘grammatical Ombudsman’ has already fetched his red pen to paint my mistakes, I have already pleaded guilty.

We all know English is a difficult language. If I say country (kowntri) instead of (kuntri) and you pretend not to understand what I am saying, because I didn’t pronounce it correctly, then you are just as too known as the teacher who called her student Comfort Antwi as: kumfet Ant wee. The students had noted the teacher’s characteristic way of mispronouncing names, so Comfort pretended she didn’t hear her. After the third try, the teacher came home and pronounced it the Ghanaian way: Komfcct, (c for or) whereupon the student responded: Yes Madam (Maddamm). Who has time to say: `Madem?

The author is only a journalist; he has no powerful English credentials in writing this article, except a degree in English, a postgraduate in Communication, an LLM and TEFL.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.