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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-09-8)

My last column mentioned the ignorance we display when we use scientific terms we don’t really understand, such as “quantum leap”. No sooner had I sent the article off to its destination than the South African Broadcasting Corporation obligingly provided another example in an advertisement.

The compiler had decided to base his copy on a witty reference to the weather forecast. He said that we were to expect “a trough of high pleasure” from some forthcoming programme. This is an obvious pun on “high pressure” but high atmospheric pressure occurs not in troughs but in ridges. The pressure is high simply because the air has piled up in a heap like a sea-swell and is thicker than the surrounding air. The air is also cold and therefore denser and heavier than warm air. So it is impossible to have a trough of high pressure, and a “trough of high pleasure” has meaning only if you happen to be a pig.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the garbled English we encounter daily is the result of ignorance or of a deliberate attempt to destroy the language. People are amazingly unselfconscious about their errors, even in places where their work is clearly meant to last for some time. In a museum in the Natal Midlands I saw a large standing display containing the word “approximatley” in letters 4 cm high. Another example was the label I found on a bottle of pills claiming to cure almost everything that flesh is heir to. It read: “(This product) is ‘n member of the coffee family…It was probably carried by early voyagers to Polynesia where it has ling been utilised…The tree produces a fleshly yellow fruit which is grounded to a pulp.”

This piece of prose was not compiled in Polynesia. The vendors have a PO Box number in Halfway House, near Johannesburg, telephone and fax numbers and an e-mail address (in which, let us remember, a single tiny error would prevent transmission of the message). It’s interesting to note the use of the Afrikaans “‘n” - the only appearance of the language on the entire label – and the misprint “ling” which went undetected. The last sentence is a little gem of its kind, and ought to be preserved in the annals of advertising. But who writes this stuff? The parking attendant?

These examples have all been the result of ignorance or carelessness, but the Durban morning paper recently contained an example of what looks like deliberate vandalism. It involves the vexed question of the split infinitive, which calls forth the wisdom of the immortal H W Fowler. His Dictionary of Modern English Usage was first published in 1926 and is an unchallenged classic of lucid and economical prose. Surprisingly, he doesn’t condemn split infinitives out of hand (and he has some hard words for those who do). He says: “We admit that separation of “to” from its infinitive is not in itself desirable. ..We maintain, however, that a real split infinitive…is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality.” I heartily concur.

So what are we to make of this piece of writing on the front page of the Durban paper? “Mr Mbeki was to again share the stage with Mrs Madikezela-Mandela…” The writer gained nothing by avoiding “was to share the stage again”; he solved no problem of fitting words into a narrow column, and the meaning is no clearer than the alternative. Can he have done it deliberately? It’s more likely that he belongs to a class described by Fowler: “Those who neither know nor care (what a split infinitive is) are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes.”

But why do they go into journalism and advertising? I would like to really, really know. Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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