March 31, 2016 § Leave a comment
Are you able to read?
This question might have been asked of a child when I was young. However, since perhaps the millennium phrases such as “I can swim.”; “I can play football.”; “I can read and write.” seem to have fallen out of use.
We talk mainly of “skills”. We improve our reading skills. In a charity shop, over the public address system (or perhaps intercom), volunteers are enticed by the suggestion that they will improve their skills. The skills include meeting and talking to people.
For me the word “skill” still suggests an acquirement that is above and beyond the average. Most of us read. But not many of us play a piano to Wigmore Hall standards. How do we now describe the accomplished playing of a concert pianist?
At an assembly a few weeks ago, I listened to children speak of their recently improved skills. One of the children talked about her “patience skills”. Other skills were mentioned too: “endurance skills”.
Is this not a most unnatural way of speaking? Why should the language school children use smack so much of the business world? Do we now talk of our “waiting-in-a-queue-skills” or our “buying bread skills”?
September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
The words ‘not appropriate’ and variations such as ‘not appropriately . . . ’ are phrases that you could hardly avoid. Although the words are old, they have become current in so many contexts that they have taken on a new and larger life.
About two and a half years ago, I was helping some school children make a Papier-mâché model of themselves from newspapers, donated by parents. A hand went up, and a girl of about eight or nine signalled to my attention part of the newspaper. It contained the word ‘sexy’. She advised me that it was ‘not appropriate’. Perhaps, I belong to a generation of children who were too ‘innocent’ to be quite so alive to what was ‘not appropriate’.
There are so many things today that are ‘not appropriate’. The phrase is one that covers a spectrum of behaviour from the criminal to the careless. But we are never sure which end of the spectrum a particular ‘not appropriate’ occupies.
Novelists write of ‘veiled threats’ and one might talk of words having ‘veiled meanings and connotations’. A word with the scope of ‘not appropriate’ suggests the ‘awful’ and the ‘unmentionable’. And fear is struck into the hearts of those against whom it is used. What exactly does the message containing the words ‘not appropriate’ mean? Have we, the recipients of the ‘not appropriate’ message, missed out on some vital lesson of life and are so ignorant that we or those belonging to us indulge in behaviour that is ‘not appropriate’?
Today if a father is told that his son was ‘not appropriately’ dressed for a field trip, he might be forgiven for wondering whether the teacher means that his son did not wear wellingtons or that his son wore high heels.
The builder’s behaviour was not appropriate. Does this mean he asked to use the toilet or that he made a pass at someone?
We don’t know what ‘not appropriate’ means. And sometimes we daren’t ask.
March 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the seventies the word ‘problems’ was freely used, but by the late eighties, ‘problems’ was seen as a negative word which reflected a negative cast of mind. It was better to speak of ‘challenges’, and better still to love a ‘challenge’.
The taboo on the word ‘problems’ continues right up to the present day. Oddly enough, since the early years of this century the word ‘solutions’, presumably to some implied problems, has abounded. But even the most popular words must lose their lustre and, it seems, that the positive word ‘solutions’ is giving way to the more negative one ‘issues’. A school, for example, that was once seeking storage space solutions may now declare that they have storage space issues.
The word ‘issues’ has distinct negative connotations yet it has recommended itself to the populace at large and is being so frequently used that unless you were to take up the life of a hermit, you could hardly escape it.
However, people use the word ‘issues’ in such an indiscriminate way that we cannot be sure what exactly it means, other than to say that ‘issues’ covers anything from a query to a serious personal reverse, and anything from a minor nuisance to wrongdoing that may be criminal.
Please, do not hesitate to contact me . . . personally, over the school phone or via email to discuss any issues.
Letter from a school about a student exchange itinerary (March 2014).
. . . I can wholly recommend her as she has really helped me with various issues . . . A personal email (March 17th) from a woman promoting the massage therapies of her cousin.
There are no issues. (March 20th) A swimming instructor’s verbal assurance to a father that he could buy his daughter a replacement swim hat before her next lesson.
And on March 24th, I learnt from news on Classic FM that The Co-operative Bank has to raise £400 million to cover other issues.
The word ‘issues’ is altogether too flexible in its meaning. A handy word for institutions of one sort and another to hide behind and for individuals to use in a rather self-aggrandising way: for example, parents who say they are prevented from doing things because of childcare issues. If what they mean is that they cannot get hold of a babysitter, rather than that the babysitter has turned out to be unfit to look after children, then why don’t they say so.
Let Jacques Barzun in the opening paragraph of an essay entitled ‘Look for Trouble Ahead’ have the last word:
George Orwell pointed out years ago that bad writing was often a sign of political deceit. Today it is a sign of unlovely human traits as well—vanity, pretentiousness, complacency about one’s ignorance, disrespect toward the listener, and a curious mixture of slavish imitation and a desire to appear original.
July 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
For years the word ‘solutions’ has been in vogue. People offer all sorts of ‘solutions’, fostering, cleaning, and plumbing.
One of Crouch End’s supermarkets offers ‘ready meal solutions’. Is ‘ready meal solutions’ the right phrase? The word ‘solution’ according to my Concise Oxford Dictionary (2006) is a means of solving a problem/a correct answer to a puzzle.
‘Ready meals’ are not the ‘problem’, but the bother of making your own dinner is. A dinner might generate three hours of work (wash-up, done by hand). So wouldn’t it be better to entitle that part of the aisle: ‘dinner solutions’. At least the right problem (of making your dinner) is implied. Better still, the word ‘solutions’ could be replaced by ‘selection of’. We would read ‘selection of ready meals’. It does not have the same ring, at all, of ‘ready meal solutions’ but it would be more accurate.
The word ‘solutions’ sounds scientific. Has the person, providing the ‘solutions’, only arrived at them after many hours of experimentation in a laboratory? The word ‘solutions’ implies a problem that cannot be diagnosed at a glance. But many of them can be.
Earlier this year, a letter from a school noted that ‘storage solutions’ were needed. Years ago the school would have been quite content to write about not having enough space to store musical instruments.
July 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
‘Utilize’ is a very popular word in business. Business writers cannot resist it. The word seems to appear in every ‘conventional’ business book I read. We are advised to ‘utilize’ our skills, perhaps, or our knowledge.
Do people think ‘utilize’ is the rich relative of ‘use’ ? Should we say ‘utilize’, in a meeting, where, in everyday life, we would say ‘use’.
utilize It can seem PRETENTIOUS to use utilize where use will do, and it nearly always will do. There is some excuse for utilize in the sense of ‘put to unexpected practical use’ (utilize an old bathtub as a drinking trough).
Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, Longman Guide to English Usage (1988)
utilize This is not just a fancy word for use, and you should not write things like *Computers can be utilized for a number of purposes. The word means ‘put to a useful purpose (something that would otherwise be wasted)’. For example, oil companies used to throw away petrol (gasoline), until the invention of the internal-combustion engine meant that it could finally be utilized.
R.L. Trask, Mind The Gaffe (2001)
In the Concise Oxford Dictionary (2006) ‘utilize’ or ‘utilise’ is defined as ‘make practical and effective use of: he was determined to utilize the new technology.’
Those dictionary-compiling people at the Oxford Unversity Press have muddied the waters. Aren’t we now back to square one? Isn’t the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s example of ‘utilize’ pretentious? There is no sense here that the ‘he’ of the example is using the technology in some ‘unexpected’ way or that if he did not utilize the technology, it would go to waste. Would not Trask, Greenbaum, and Whitcut have been content with he was determined to use the new technology.
All the same, in real life, the word ‘utilize’ is by and large just a fancy word for ‘use’. Its appeal eludes me. Its use may be pretentious but unlike other ‘pretentious’ words, it has no poetry.
July 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
On the use of the word ‘irregardless’
Illiterate. Theodore M Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965)
This means the same as regardless, which is itself negative; probably the added negative prefix was mistakenly introduced by analogy with irrespective. It should not be used. Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut, Longman Guide to English Usage (1988)
irregardless There is no such word: write regardless, not *irregardless. R.L Trask, Mind The Gaffe (2001)
February 9 : “I have just learnt,” said Cody [Gilman], “that you cannot use the word ‘irregardless.’ Of course if it’s incorrect I shan’t use it; naturally one cannot have an outlawed word in one’s vocabulary. But”—he looked very wistful—“I don’t expect to get anywhere without it. I owe all my skill in debate to that one word. Irregardless. You can’t prove anything with regardless. But take irregardless. Why, you throw out ‘irregardless’ into the argument and you win, hands down. Nobody can talk back.” The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965