Examining the difference wayward letters of the alphabet may make in the English language.
Examining the difference which wayward letters of the alphabet may make in the English language.
IT’S a curious thing that misplaced or missing letters have a habit of appearing unexpectedly, to be discovered and read by unintended finders, sometimes with untoward consequences. Historical events may have to be re-interpreted. Cordial relations between nations may be compromised, or worse. On the home front, domestic bliss may turn sour. No, I’m not about to write a detective novel which opens with the sensational discovery of an incriminating letter, or letters. Rather, I’m putting together my thoughts not about epistles and missives but about letters of the alphabet – specifically on how the wayward use of one or more letters can make a difference in the structure, meaning, and correctness of a sentence or expression.
For a start, let us look at some excerpts gleaned recently from the dailies. The following examples (with salient letters/words underlined or missing letters/words indicated by a double slash), besides providing a lesson in English and its grammar, illustrate the point that I strive to make above: (1) “... whose eyes and beard resemble // his father ...”
About Canilo, the son of Che Guevara, in The Malay Mail, Oct 13, p15. It is impossible for eyes and beard to resemble an entire human being; a few letters words actually, viz “those of” are missing from the sentence, which should be corrected to “... whose eyes and beard resemble those of his father ...”. (2) “He is deemed a ‘ leadign talent’” – The Star, Oct 30, p. W47. There has been a transposition of the letters “g” and “n”. Is the word leadign to be pronounced the same way as condign? (3) “... there are so many supportive people – the current and // former players and badminton lovers to enlivened this vision.” – The Star, Oct 24, pS61. There are two groups of players and badminton lovers, viz the current and the former, so that the definite article the should be repeated for the second group; furthermore, the extraneous letters “-ed” tagged onto enliven has a jarring effect. (4) “Instead Coleen chatted earnestly with a grey-haired 25st British man who has been admitted to the Rooney’s inner circle.” About Wayne Rooney, the British footballer, and his wife Coleen, in The Star, Oct 29, pS64. How does one pronounce 25st? Is it 25st or 25th? In any case the sentence is awkwardly constructed. (5) “Firmly and it measured tones, Najib said ‘ The Malays must be ready for this era.’” – New Straits Times, Oct 22, p4. The typo it instead of in can be pretty irksome. (6) “An automatic pistol with several rounds of ammunition, cooking utensils and an assortment of chemicals such a hydrochloric acid were recovered in the premises.” – The Star, Oct 23, pN3. The missing letter “s” in a instead of as makes the reader do a double take. Incidentally, the usual construction is “recovered from”, not “recovered in”. (7) “... visitors will be able to see the reptiles (crocodiles) rising their heads above the pond to snatch slaughtered chickens lowered on a pole” – StarMetro North, Oct 28, pM4. The missing letter “a” in rising instead of raising would correctly change the intransitive verb to a transitive one. (8) “... amending the University and University Colleges Act was important to prevent it from becoming a point of descent” – The Star, Oct 21, pN4. Replacing a few letters would correctly change descent to dissent. (9) “IB Diploma being an academically rigorous course, it is not for the faint-hearted.” – StarSpecial/Higher Education, Oct 27, pSS9. The letters “it” are extraneous (obviously functioning as the pronoun it standing for “IB Diploma”), so that the sentence could be corrected to “The IB Diploma, being an academically rigorous course, is not for the faint-hearted” or “Being an academically rigorous course, the IB Diploma is not for the faint-hearted”. (10) “Their business has grown especially since they are also market the meat and milk through Facebook ... .” – StarMetro North, Oct 21, pM6. The letters – in fact the word “are” – are extraneous. (11) “... there were no security guards on duty at the warehouse, enabling the thieves to cooly drive away an eight-tonne lorry packed with 542 boxes ... .” – New Straits Times, Sept. 29, p2. The word cooly is a variant spelling of coolie, which is an offensive term used in certain Asian countries for an unskilled labourer. The addition of the letter “l” changes the said word cool to the adverb coolly, which correctly fits into the sentence.
The letter ‘s’
“A gunman and four accomplices carted away 200 arowana fries worth RM200,000 from an ornamental fish supplier’s house in Taman Jambu, Sri Rambai here.” – Sunday Star, Oct 3, pN10. The word fries is plural in form. When used in connection with fish – in this case arowana, also known as dragonfish, bony-tongue, and the Malaysian mahseer – only the singular form fry is used, but with the plural sense, for “young fish, especially when newly hatched” ( Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004). On the other hand, the plural form, fries or, more completely, French fries means “long thin pieces of potato fried in oil or fat”. (The US and Australian equivalent of fries is chips.) So, dear readers, when you read about one of our politicians pouring fries into a pond, you can bet that he is not throwing potato chips to feed the fish in the pond but that he is releasing fish hatchlings into the pond to stock it.
The letter “s”, sometimes “-es”, is a common suffix to form the plural of many nouns. However, we may further note that: (1) some nouns do not form the plural, e.g. equipment, furniture; (2) the singular form of some nouns also functions as the plural, e.g. aircraft, deer, offspring, sheep, spawn; (3) some nouns are plural in form and singular in meaning, e.g. crossroads, news, shambles. (Furthermore, the singular summons can have the plural form, summonses.)
It is important to note that some nouns have both the singular and the plural forms, but with different meanings or shades of meanings. The example fry/ fries discussed above is a case in point. Other examples: ash/ashes, due/dues, damage/damages, folk/folks, fruit/fruits, manner/manners, moral/ morals, premise/premises, right/rights.
[For a fuller discussion, see “Nouns have many forms”, in MOE, 2 May 2008.]
Other letters to make nouns plural
Besides “s”, there are other letters used to form the plural, especially of nouns of foreign origin. Owing to space constraints, I need illustrate with only two examples: (1) the substitution of “e” for “i” in certain nouns of Greek origin, e.g. analysis/analyses [pronounced “uh.nal.uh.sis / uh.nal.uh/seez”], basis/bases, crisis/crises, thesis/theses; and (2) the tagging on of the letter “x” to nouns of French origin, e.g. beau/beaux, bureau/bureaux, chateau/chateaux, plateau/plateaux.
Changing adjective to noun
“The country’s 27 million population consists of three main racial groups – Malaysia, Chinese, and Indians – and numerous orang asli tribes in the Peninsular as well as indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak.” – The Star, Oct 26, pN51. It takes one letter, viz “r”, to correct the above excerpt. The word Peninsular, being an adjective, should be replaced by the noun, Peninsula, with the extraneous “r” knocked off. One letter truly makes a difference in grammatical correctness.
Changing noun to verb
“... Gerakan leaders who attended Tuesday’s emergency central working committee meeting, wanted Koh to trash things out with his mentor, Dr Lim.” – New Straits Times, Oct 7, p8. The word trash is American English. As a noun it means “waste material, refuse”, and as a verb it means “to wreck or destroy, to criticise severely”. Here the use of the expression “trash things out” does not quite carry the American meaning. In such context, the verb should be corrected by the insertion of the letter “h”, changing trash to thrash, so that the amended expression “thrash something out” means “to discuss something frankly and thoroughly, especially to reach a decision” ( Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004). A less common spelling of thrash is thresh.
Consider another example: “The sports that have won in Delhi (the Commonwealth Games in 2010) must now strife to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London.” – The Star, Oct 16, pS68. Here, for grammatical correctness, the noun strife must be changed – with the substitution of the letter “v” for “f” – to the verb strive. Incidentally, the sentence is weirdly constructed. Sports per se could not have won and cannot strive, but the medallists in the sports have won and can strive.
Changing adverb to preposition
“Foreigners and locals who commute to and fro Universiti Sains Malaysia in Rapid Penang buses want the buses to be more punctual and more information on the time schedule and routes.” – The Star/Saturday Metro, Sept 25, pM7. Here one letter, “m”, makes an important grammatical difference. The expression to and fro is a phrasal adverb, which is wrongly used in the above example, should be changed to the phrasal preposition to and from. Incidentally, the predicate after the verb want – “... the buses to be more punctual and more information on the time schedule and routes” – is not balanced. It consists of two parts, the second of which is incomplete. The complete predicate should read as follows: “... the buses to be more punctual and to provide more information on the time schedule and routes”.)
“Hishammuddin said the force should show that it would not hesitate to take stern action against rouge personnel.” – The Star, Oct 2, pN3. There does not seem to be rhyme or reason in Hishammuddin’s statement, until it dawns on the reader that there has been a transposition of the letters “u” and “g” so that rouge should be corrected to rogue.
Duplication of terminating consonants
“I am aware of the situation and the teachers, and I believe it is fueled by something personal” – The Star, Sept 6, pN3. The derivatives of fuel are spelt as fuelled/fuelling in British English but as fueled/fueling in American English. As a general rule, British English duplicates the terminating consonant which follows after a vowel (e.g. panellist, propelled/propelling, travelled/travelling, kidnapped/kidnapping, worshipped/worshipping – except in a few words, such as benefited/ benefiting, vomited/vomiting). On the other hand, American English does not duplicate terminating consonants (e.g. panelist, kidnaped/kidnaping, worshiped/worshiping – except when the final syllable is accented. Thus propel, whose final syllable is accented, yields propelled/propelling, whereas travel, where the final syllable is unaccented, gives traveled/traveling.
So there, dear readers, you have it, my case outlining some situations where one or more letters of the alphabet can make a difference between gibberish and sense, between grammatical infraction and grammatical exactitude, and (by illustrating with even one feature) the difference between British English and American English.