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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 : 2004-09-21)

I am continually surprised by the unblushing willingness of professional writers – newspapermen, advertising copywriters and so on – to commit gaffes in very public places without apparent embarrassment. Presumably they don't know what they have done, or they wouldn’t have done it in the first place, but are there no longer any checks on their work by someone who does know?

Occasional typographical errors in newspapers are to be expected, because of the time constraints on their writers, but our first example is from a weekly newspaper, where there should be plenty of time for proof-reading. It announces proudly in a headline that an “Achon Committee delays high-rise rezoning.” Three spelling errors in one six-letter word, “Action”, must be something of a record (inserting one wrong letter and leaving out two correct ones.)

Spell-check errors are increasingly common in the age of word-processors. One such was contained in a theatre review in our Durban morning newspaper: “The production…is one about which Taylor is excited, but loathe to reveal too much.” The wrong word here is of course “loathe” where he meant “loth” – reluctant or unwilling.To add to the confusion it is sometimes spelt “loath”, both versions deriving from the Old English “lath”, meaning hateful. The related Old English “lathian” gives us “loathe”, meaning to dislike intensely. It is also a verb, of course, and doesn’t belong in the sentence quoted above. To tell these words apart – loth, loath and loathe – may be a little tricky, but surely not impossible?

A visit to Durban Airport produced a couple of shining examples of illiteracy writ large. The first was on a poster advertising – for some unfathomable reason – the local electricity supplier. In a touching attempt at an aeronautical theme, the writer urged us in very large print to “avoid the turbulance of a steep electricity account.” Where did he get that spelling from? Perhaps he associated it with “ambulance”, but why not look it up?

Outside the airport building is an enormous display welcoming travellers to this city, where, it says, “Racing’s finest, the beaches’ hottest, and soccer’s best!” Where, when we need her, is Lynne Truss, high priestess of the apostrophe? We can’t quarrel with the statements about racing and soccer, where the apostrophe indicates a missing letter – “Racing IS finest” – but what are we to make of the apostrophe on “beaches’”? What is missing is not a letter, but the word “are”, and you can’t use an apostrophe to indicate a missing word. If the apostrophe had been omitted altogether, readers would probably have mentally inserted “are” anyway, but it wouldn’t have hurt much to use the word in full. I think the copywriter just had an uneasy feeling that there ought to be an apostrophe somewhere,”beach’es” and “beache’s” looked wrong, so “beaches’” must be right. Wrong again, Watson.

So it appears that Illiteracy Inc is alive and flourishing, soon to declare a dividend, no doubt. As a matter of fact, the dividend may already be on its way: we have just been advised that massive staff cuts are in the offing on the English Service of the S A Broadcasting Corporation. Several favourite programmes will disappear along with their presenters, including the book programme, the language programme and two arts programmes. A sad day indeed, and a menacing augury of what is to come.

Perhaps we should cheer ourselves up with a visit to a country resort in the Natal Midlands, which advertises “Hiking, Relaxation, Peace & Quite.”

Quite.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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