Mind Your Language

It is generally accepted that solving puzzles – from anagrams to crosswords to Scrabble to word searches to I.Q. tests – is good for the mind. However, solving them is one thing, failing to solve them is another. We get almost euphoric when we unravel an easy riddle and get really annoyed when we don’t. We rack our brains when trying to solve difficult problems,when sometimes,the answer is staring us in the face. I know of a man – who worked as a bookkeeper – who couldn’t figure out this quiz question: What’s the only ten-letter word in the English language that contains three consecutive double letters?

He’s still looking for the answer apparently. His ten-year-old child told him to look in the mirror and ask himself what he does for a living.

Has there ever been a mistake – other than a genuine typing error – in a dictionary or a thesaurus? I’m not aware of any. But all around us, in radio/television talk shows, daily newspapers and weekly/monthly magazines, basic oral language/writing errors are being made on a regular basis. Most of these can be put down to carelessness and the acquisition of bad habits. One of the most unwanted bad habits that we have in Ireland is the way we pronounce the letters th. Despite the fact that we were always taught to put our tongue between our teeth when pronouncing the th sound, for some reason the letter d sound found its way in instead. So,the became de,then became den,this turned into dis,that turned into dat,etc. Thankfully,thing didn’t change to ding. But – I’m sure you’ll agree –ting isn’t much better. Some Irish politicians – past & present – are experts in dese[sic] tings[sic].

On a school tour to London in the 1980s, I observed a young English student using a computer in an electrical shop. I presume that his name was John because he had typed John woz ere (John was here) on the screen. Eyebrows were raised because was was a word that wasn’t on any list of the most common misspelt /misspelled words. He proceeded to demonstrate his vast array of computer skills-far superior to mine-but his spellings certainly needed attention.

How many times have we heard a football manager use the words, The boy done good ? (The boy did well.)The manager could possibly have had major success on the pitch but he certainly needs coaching in another field. Fans of Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports regard Jeff Stelling as the perfect anchor presenter due to his knowledge, enthusiasm and continuity skills. Jeff – whose favourite team incidentally is Hartlepool United – is hailed as the doyen of broadcasters as he keeps his viewers informed of the scores and scorers in matches in the English and Scottish Leagues with alarming speed and zest. His command of the English language is exemplary and he rarely makes a mistake,even under pressure.

On occasions however,the same cannot be said for some of the ex-players who make up the  panel on the programme. Legendary Premier League stars in their day no doubt, but dodgy enough at times with some of their verbs. Jeff must be tempted at times to correct them. But if he were to concentrate on doing that, we could well miss out on their display of infectious exuberance as the goals go in,especially the last-minute winners. And the fans do not want that. On the other hand, viewers are treated to some very imaginative Cockney rhyming slang by one of the panel in particular. Beans-on-toast apparently means hitting the post. He done[sic] a beans-on-toast Jeff is a regular comment. Lots of people like beans-on-toast. And lots of people like the panel too. In fact, the banter between Jeff and the panellists can be more entertaining than the action on the pitch. Tune in for a good laugh!

An increasingly-common insertion in writing nowadays is a pair of square brackets with the letters sic enclosed, as seen above in the Soccer Saturday piece. This development is a sign of the times in which we live, and it’s bad news if it refers to a piece written by your good self. It means that an original article – which another writer is quoting for whatever reason – contains an error of some kind. The mistake is usually related to spelling, grammar or punctuation.


• A job application reference contained the sentence, She is very inciteful.
At this stage, I have to write the sentence again and insert [ sic] .
She is very inciteful. [sic]
Although the person who wrote the reference had the best of intentions – the word should’ve been insightful – I don’t think that any employer would hire a teacher who is very good at stirring up violent behaviour in a classroom! True story by the way.

• A letter arrived one day from the Department of Education and Science addressed to, The Princeable [sic]. My self-esteem soared when I realised that I was deemed to have the status of royalty. It was quite short-lived however, as I didn’t get any wedding invitations to the palace. Maybe I’ll get a walk-on part in The Royle Family.

One could very easily get sick of writing [sic]. However, I read recently that the Church of Scientology had given Tom Cruise a gift of an airport hanger [sic]. Then again, maybe Tom did need a hangar to store all his clothes on hangers. I wonder will he ever film a cliffhanger scene in his hangar! The list goes on and on. The travel writer wrote that, … you can travel with piece [sic] of mind. Should I give that person a piece of my mind? One of R.T.E’s highest paid broadcasters recently introduced her show with the words, She’s came [sic] here …A slip of the tongue,perhaps. An online story – when referring to a yacht in difficulty – reported that It were[sic] towed back to Courtmacsherry. The menu in one of the restaurants in Harrods in London contains the word ingridients [sic].Do genuine typing errors occur or can mistakes be traced to carelessness? A report in a Sunday newspaper referring to a hurling match between Cork and Galway mentioned that their games often endure as landmarks for years afterwards. The words in italics appeared as THIER [sic] GAMES OFTEN ENDURE AS LANDMARKS FOR YEARS AFTERWARDS in a block insert headline. We’ll have to put that one down to carelessness,I suppose. An editorial in The Sunday Times asked who’s [sic] fault was it . . . The news headline on the eircom.net homepage of 18/11/2012 read Four dead in Norwegian riots. However, when I opened it up, I saw that the article referred to riots in Nigeria! Honestly, I’m not making these up. Ripley’s Believe It or Not ! could have a field day in this field. Before I move on, if I do get the much-coveted honour of being quoted somewhere sometime, I hope that the writer quoting me will not have to write [sic]. Fingers crossed!

Sometimes, one can receive letters with an incorrect title before the name. In addition to being labelled Princeable, I was also called Dr. and P.P. for Parish Priest. If being associated with royalty wasn’t enough, having connections with educational or medical doctors as well as with the clergy, often left me in a state of bewilderment regarding my identity. Regular passport checks were the order of the day to avoid a crisis!

Other words which are commonly misspelt or mixed up are lose/loose, practice/ practise, advice/advise, licence/license, principal/principle, disks/discs, programme/program, specific/Pacific and assess/access. Make sure that the correct one is used. Look it up!
(On principle, the school principal’s principal principle was inscribed on a plaque on a castle wall in the principality. Some principal! Some principle!) By the way, don’t rely on your computer spell check. And finally, watch out for spelling differences between English and American versions, e.g. colour/color, centre/center.

Whereas the words are and were appear to be disappearing fast from the English language in Ireland, the opposite seems to be the case in England. Watch any English television soap drama or news bulletin and one is likely to hear, It were raining.(It was raining.)The English obviously listen to a lot of Irish people saying things like, There was[sic] fights during the match and are concerned about our diction. To compensate for this misuse of their language, the writers of Eastenders, Emmerdale, Coronation St., etc., will always insert were for was because they realize that were will soon become extinct in Ireland and are not prepared to allow this to happen. It’s their language and they can –rightly- do what they want to. We should be grateful!

The three examples relating to the computer whizz-kid, the rising football star Messialdo and the star-struck soap actor are all grammatically incorrect. Check out the section on the Top 20 Mistakes to see how we’re doing in Ireland.

We have some excuse here though for getting things wrong at times. As Ireland has two official languages –Irish and English- we tend to get a bit confused and mix up the two.
For instance, the words do, bean, tar, lean, can, is, an, teach, go, lag, bail ,ball, fear, fad, seal, suite, etc., appear in both languages and my theory is that when we’re speaking English, our patriotic minds are –subconsciously- reverting to the native tongue and the resulting speech ends up in a tangled mess. A common error is, He do it all the time instead of, He does it all the time. It’s simply the Irish loving the Irish word do. Another example is, She lean on me instead of She leaned on me. We sometimes leave out the ed suffix in the Past Tense of verbs for love of the mother tongue. It’s our way of keeping the language alive, albeit in a funny way. But we need to concentrate exclusively on using English when speaking English.

For people who are not familiar with Irish humour, please disregard the previous paragraph and references to English television soap dramas in another paragraph. No offence intended!

Once upon a time in Ireland, Captain Charles Boycott’s surname –surely a bad word- became an entry in English dictionaries. Following on from that, the Irish people showed its generosity once again when it handed over the word galore –surely a good word – to the English who deemed it worthy enough to take its place alongside such heavyweights as altruistic and zenith and all else in between. Another word has now entered Irish vocabulary. It’s a necessary evil we’ve been told. Not the word mind you but what it stands for. There was a time when the National Asset Management Agency would’ve been abbreviated to N.A.M.A. ( All capital letters followed by full stops) Subsequently, the full stops were deemed to be superfluous – not just in Ireland – and N.A.M.A. became NAMA. There’s no doubt that a case can be made for this particular change. However, I read today in one of the so-called quality broadsheets that Nama – definitely the most cringing word in Ireland’s economic history – owes a fortune in legal bills. A stranger visiting Ireland may well wonder who Nama is and may want to keep their distance. Is it a he or a she? Some legends need only one name and they assume immediate identification and recognition. Just mention Tarzan, Jane, Pele (and all Brazilian footballers of note), Bono, Cleopatra, Cher, Sting, Liberace (pianist from once upon a time), Madonna, Nostradamus, etc., and straight away we conjure up all sorts of mesmerizing images. The bad news however, for the unfortunate Nama,who, according to the latest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, is a member of the Khoikhoi tribe living in either South Africa or Namibia, is that he or she owes € 2.7 ml. in tax to the Irish Revenue Commissioners. How ’bout that? That’s some predicament to be in / in which to be. Imagine -upon arrival in Ireland -looking at a poster in the airport informing you of a situation akin to the Wanted: Dead or Alive poster in America’s Wild West of long ago.What should the African Nama do? Do a runner? Take on a false identity? Plead ignorance? Pay in instalments? Pursuing these courses-of-action may well prolong the agony in the long term and have someone looking over their shoulder for some time to come. The answer is actually ( apologies for splitting the verb) staring him/her in the face. If I were Nama, I’d change my name immediately to NAMA or-better still- to N.A.M.A. Problem solved. Is there a case for all acronyms–words made up of the first letter of other words-to be capitalized and have full stops after each letter when these new words represent organizations? They would acquire more status and assume immediate clarity for a universal audience.

A horrible thought has just struck me. I wonder does someone’s granny owe that amount. It might well have been a typing error on the paper’s part.

And finally, – and curiously – why is it, that on occasions, the English ( as well as Australians and others ) add the letter r at the end of words that end in a and w? (Speaking only)

I had no idea(r) what was going on.

I saw(r) them in the shop.

The big thaw(r) is expected next week.

Commonly referred to as the intrusive r, I have found no definitive answer as to why it is added . Maybe it’s to do with dialect, either regional or social, or both. But maybe it’s best kept a mystery. As I said, it’s their language. But the good news for the Irish is that it’s already being used here. An Irish – and Irish based – reporter contributing to an Irish television programme on Irish crime families, referred to two thugs wearing balaclavars.I will have to check with TV3 as to his county of origin and current county of residence and get him to apologise to the nation.Can we stem the tide?  Is it to be welcomed? Teachers will not take too kindly to the development because it will cause confusion in young minds and increase the amount of incorrect spellings.

There are times when we allow our writing – from a spelling to a headline to a paragraph – to gallop out of control without thinking it through properly in advance. Authors of grammar books will usually include  funny examples of the above that they come across in their everyday lives. The word potato sometimes gets a mauling.( In this regard however, if the Vice-President of the U.S.A. can spell that word incorrectly,then…) One of my own favourites is a sign over a shoe-shop in a Co. Cork town.It reads, A.N.OTHER (not the owner’s real name!) SHOES & Daughters. No comment required.

So, putting all those peculiar idiosyncrasies aside, let us face the challenge of preserving basic English grammar and punctuation skills. The approach adopted here will be based on the old saying We learn by our mistakes. Despite the fact that the English language gets itself tangled into knots at times–and it’s no different to other languages in this regard, but far better off than Irish where the knots can be much harder to untangle- the most common mistakes can be rectified with a little care and attention.

On July 15th, 2012, posted in: Everyday English by

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