Archive for the 'language' Category

Are you affected by effects?

I used to have a boss who was never sure whether to write ‘effect’ or ‘affect’. Whenever he got to the word, he would ring me up for advice – and cheerfully admitted that he could never remember what I told him from one time to the next.

It is confusing, I know. And it’s made worse by the fact that each of them can be either a verb or a noun (though affect as a noun is pretty rare and a bit archaic). I tend to think of them in their verb forms first:

effect = to carry out, to execute, as in “my plan is to effect changes” (think of the initial ‘e’ in effect and the initial ‘e’ in execute.)

affect = to have an influence upon, as in “those changes will affect a lot of people“.

It does get a bit trickier though when effect is also a noun – as in “if I effect those changes, the effect will be to affect many people” .

Then, to make matters worse, there is an alternative meaning of the verb to affect, linked to the word ‘affectation’, as in “he affects a slight foreign accent “.

In the end, you just have to rely on your memory. Or, failing that, ring up a subordinate. You might find that effective.

Writing goofs

When I was at school (a very long time ago) I was taught how to write. I don’t mean just how to form letters; I mean how to put words together so that their meaning is clear and unambiguous. And I was taught that it is important to spell correctly, to observe certain rules of grammar and syntax, and to punctuate in a way that aids understanding.

So deeply were these rules ingrained that, to this day, I just cannot help wincing when I see them broken.

I am aware however that, in the intervening years, a more relaxed approach has come in. Younger people have been encouraged simply to express themselves, and not to worry about ‘correctness’. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far that oldies like me are made to feel like fastidious old pedants, fussing on endlessly about things that don’t matter.

I was particularly glad, therefore, to come across Joanna Young’s blog at http://coachingwizardry.typepad.com/confident_writing/. She, it seems to me, has the right approach. She advocates the correct use of language, not for its own sake, but for what it says about you and your organisation, as well as for that clarity and precision that we all strive for.

Her ‘five common grammar mistakes’ chime precisely with those that most commonly make me wince these days. They are:

  • Confusing it’s and its
  • Confusing they’re, their and there
  • Confusing your and you’re
  • Using apostrophes to try and create a plural
  • Forgetting to use apostrophes to show possession
The first and last of these are, of course, linked. People write “the book and it’s title” because they think the apostrophe is needed to indicate possession – forgetting that “its” is a possessive pronoun in its own right, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’, whereas “it’s” is just an abbreviation of “it is”. Yet one sees this error in the copy of major advertisers, whose (not ‘who’s’) agencies really ought to know better.
So – thanks, Joanna, for highlighting these points. I’m on your side!
Oh – and one more thing that makes me wince: the creeping use of lower-case”i” for the first person singular.

Less is more?


Tom, our grandson, is “sixteen, going on seventeen”. Months, that is. And his vocabulary, it must be said, is somewhat limited. To him, all female humans are “Mammas”, all males are “Daddas”, all four-legged creatures are “Dogs”and all four-wheeled vehicles are “T’actors”.

He also has only one word for our feathered friends. It is “Duck”. Whether a cockerel is crowing or a warbler is warbling, it’s all the same to him. “Duck!” he says, with a certainty that brooks no argument.

Recently, we took him for a walk in the grounds of a stately home. Rounding a corner, he came face to face with a magnificent peacock. Advancing on stiff, arrogant legs, the bird looked quizzically at our grandson, its head on one side – obviously wondering if anything digestible might be on offer. Deciding that a little bribery might help, it shook itself and then spread its plumage in a blaze of iridescent blues and greens.

Tom was unimpressed. He pointed an accusatory finger. “Duck!”, he said, emphatically.

The peacock, understandably affronted, arched its neck and let out a piercing scream – the sort of sound a tormented soul might utter in one of the lower regions of Hades. Tom, who had never encountered such an ear-splitting duck before, stared wide-eyed for several moments and then burst into tears.

It was after this incident that I began to muse on what it would be like if we all had to make do with such a limited vocabulary. Would a young man enthuse about taking “this gorgeous duck out to dinner”? Would the man with the piercing stare appreciate being described as “duck-eyed”? Would culinary life be as enjoyable if we all consumed Duck’s Custard and Ducks-eye Fish-fingers”? Would Shakespeare sound the same if “the duck himself was hoarse that croaked the fatal entrance of Duncan neath our battlements”? Or Shelley – “Hail to thee blithe spirit – duck thou never wert…”?

So many symbols would change, too: we’d have the duck of peace, the last duck of summer, blue ducks over the white cliffs of Dover, and red-breasted ducks on our Christmas cards.

My mind (and yours, too, I shouldn’t wonder) began to boggle. It was all too much for me. I decided I needed a change of scene. I got into my t’actor and drove off at speed, narrowly avoiding a herd of dogs on their way to milking. Please God, let Tom learn some more words soon!

A grumble

I’m in ‘grumpy old man’ mode, and feel like a rant. And the thing I’d like to take issue with is . . . the word ‘issue’. Time was when people would write or speak of ‘subjects’, ‘topics’, ‘matters’, ‘faults’, ‘questions’, ‘problems’, ‘difficulties’ and so on. Now, every bloody thing – whether it’s a software defect or a political crisis – is an ‘issue’. It’s a perfectly good word, of course; but why impoverish the language when there are so many alternatives?

While on language – why can’t people say ‘yes’ any more? Nine times out of ten it’s ‘absolutely!’ – which takes four times as long to say and is quite unnecessary.

Also, why has the verb ‘to say’ fallen into disuse? It’s all “and he goes . . .” or “and I’m like . . .”, neither of which seems to make any sense to me. Not that anyone is going to care what I think – or ‘go’.

A final conundrum. Can anyone tell me why Clark Gable, speaking his last line in “Gone with the Wind” (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”) stressed the word ‘give’ instead of the ‘damn’?


My book cover

Recent Readers

View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile View My Profile