PC 26 This Language of Mine

This is called ‘… of mine’ as a number of my readers do not have English as their ‘first language’; I’m not trying to be too possessive!

I was never very good at spelling and suffered the ignominy of having my brother, two years older than me, supervise spelling tests in the school holidays! We would sit in the study and he would dictate that day’s Times leading article. I hated it!! To this day I have to think about the difference between practise and practice for instance, but spell-check helps …… except when it wants to put an ‘s’ and I want to put a ‘z’ or vica versa. Luckily, I guess, I grew up in an environment where the spoken and written word was valued. My step father loved doing The Telegraph crossword puzzle. In those holidays, at a weekend he would bring the paper into the kitchen as mother was preparing supper and we’d wrestle with the final few clues: “Two Down, “No Sailor’s About To Desert.” 3.2 R blank blank. blank N.

It’s sad to reflect that some sections of our society never develop sufficient vocabulary, beyond a basic 500 words, to be able to use this rich English language. Sometimes I sense that the TV soaps have, over the years, dumbed down the use of language to its coarsest; or do they simply reflect what the writers hear. Bit “chicken & egg” possibly!  The other day in a local supermarket Mrs not-very-well-educated was having a ‘go’ at her husband. “You f*** git!” I told yer before, bring the f****g shopping list! Yer useless piece of s**t. I really don’t know why I bother.” …. and this in a loud, yelling, in-your-face voice. She didn’t seem to mind that the whole supermarket had almost stopped to listen ….. but why didn’t a member of the management take them aside and tactfully ask them to be quiet? Maybe they didn’t do ‘tactful’!

Some years ago a woman who didn’t know much about me, on the very first occasion we met, said: “So you’re trained to kill people!” or maybe it should have been “So you’re trained to kill people?”, referring to my time in the British Army, which at the time of this embryonic conversation had ended over fifteen years before. Funny how some people have a very warped perspective of some aspects of life. I think I responded that we actually tried very hard not to, but if push came to shove …..! My reply came to mind when thinking about this PC and I rather wish I had said: “No! Actually we were trained to write English in the most pedantic way.” Now that would have been true … but I was never very good at the quick witty retort!

Staff Duties (SD) were a major aspect of our training, seemingly on a par with tactics and strategy. If you couldn’t write an appreciation, whether tactical or strategic, you didn’t get on. If there were spelling or punctuation mistakes during staff courses, out came the red marker pen.

We had to grapple with the proper use of the apostrophe, know when to use a colon and not a semi-colon ….. and woe betide us if we dared to split an infinitive. Does it sound better to say “To go boldly” or “To boldly go”? Personally I think the latter is better and I wear my ‘pedant’ label with a small ‘p’! I don’t think I’m so precious about it now, as the SD taught us to be, and listen with interest how this language evolves, how it lives. Some 500 words join our dictionary every year and some fall by the wayside, no longer in vogue or just obsolete, or should that be obsolescent? See what I mean? A real mine-field!

I was awake enough the other day to read of a Zeugma, a ‘figure of speech by which a single word is made to refer to two or more words in a sentence, especially when properly only applying to one of them or to them in differing senses.’ The example given was that she could draw a cork, a nude and a conclusion. Wow! How clever is that? How did I manage to get through life without knowing that? The letters page of The Times was flooded with examples, all apt: for instance, “We had turkey for lunch and Granny for tea.” and John Lennon saying “I play the guitar and sometimes the fool.” But then people started asking how you could tell the difference between a Zeugma and a Syllepsis. Well, having not known of a Zeugma for the first 68 years of my life, I think I’ll leave the understanding of the second for later!

A book came out some years ago by Lynn Truss, called: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” It explores the correct and incorrect use of punctuation in English. The title came from a wildlife manual: “Panda. Large, black-and-white bear-like animal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” Of course it should have read ‘eats shoots and leaves’ but the image of a panda firing a gun into the air is rather endearing! Bless that comma!

Lynn also explored the use of the apostrophe. Did you know, by the way (sorry, btw!), that there is an Apostrophe Protection Society? I must find where to sign up, as I love this little mark. News the other day that the ‘autocorrect’ function in our iPhones and other Apple devices will insert an apostrophe, when it’s needed, is music to my ears! How can ‘its’ mean anything other than a possessive, as in “its colour” rather than “it is colour”?  I could go on …… and on …… and on.

There may of course be punctuation errors in the above – but that’s life, innit! Just some idle thoughts, mere scribbles.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s