Way­ward letters

Ex­am­in­ing the dif­fer­ence way­ward letters of the al­pha­bet may make in the English lan­guage.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - T MOVIES - By DR LIM CHIN LAM

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”.)

Trans­posed letters

“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.

Clos­ing re­marks

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.

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