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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-10-21)

We’d better not get too involved in that question; the Shorter Oxford Dictionary devotes nearly two columns to it. I simply wanted to reflect on a tiny illiteracy that has crept into American English over the last fifty years or more, and is spreading. Cast your mind back to that mighty musical, South Pacific, and the song Some Enchanted Evening …. “And night after night/ AS strange as it seems/ The sound of her laughter/ Will sing in your dreams.”

The first “as” shouldn’t be there at all; the second one does the job on its own. The Chambers Dictionary (neatly disposing of “as” in about three column inches) gives one of its meanings as “to whatever extent”, in other words, “however much”. In prose terms, what Oscar Hammerstein was saying was: “However strange it seems, the fact is that…” The word “strange” is moved to the front for emphasis, and the “as” does its “however” job from its new position.

Adding another “as” introduces an idea of comparison, but between what two things? What is as strange as what seems? There’s no answer. If you read and listen carefully, you will find this usage cropping up with depressing frequency. Hammerstein had at least the excuse of needing an extra syllable for the verse metre; we lesser mortals haven’t.

In South Africa, “as” is misused in another way, this one involving the stress placed on it in a sentence. The phrase “as well” has two meanings: “to the same degree”, and “also”. We can properly say, “I know Jack well, but I know his brother AS well,” meaning “I know him to the same degree that I know Jack.” If we shift the emphasis and say, “I know his brother as WELL”, we simply mean that we know him also. Many, many people now use “AS well” (to mean “also”) whenever the opportunity arises, and a useful distinction between meanings has been lost.

The motive behind this clumsy innovation is obscure. One of our radio language experts remarked recently that “we all long to be Americans” (in speech and in other ways). This may be to blame for the “AS well” phenomenon, since US English has a way of shifting stress to a previous syllable, as in “REsearch” and “REcess”. This often leads to another blurring of meaning: “REsearch” with the stress at the beginning actually means “to search again”, a quite different concept from “research”. When the time comes, will the Americans be able to tell the difference between “reformation” and “re-formation”, “recreation” and “re-creation”? I doubt it.

Another recent favourite in South African speech has been the phrase “as such”, which is used to mean “true” or “real”: “There’s a general store in the village, but it’s not a supermarket as such.” This expression should really be used in sentences like: “The bishop will be on the committee, but should not be addressed as such.” (In other words, he should be addressed as a private individual, not as a bishop.) Fortunately, “as such” seems to be going out of fashion, and may disappear altogether.

Finally, a quick visit to our morning newspaper to see what the professional scribes are contributing to the language:

“The law must take its course; and…those involved in any acts of corruption should meet their just desserts.” (One hopes that the main course was up to scratch.) (4 October)

A provocative headline, perhaps intentional: “Virgin Accused Of Squeezing Personal Trainers.” (It referred to the Virgin Active health club.) (8 October)

“Sgt X…was shot by the man in his abdomen.” (9 October)

Not bad for less than a week’s work – it must come naturally to them.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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