Friday, 8 March 2013

Notes On English From A 'Non-Native Speaker'

(Apologies in advance if this post comes across as being snobbish. I can't help wincing at poor English spelling and grammar. If it's any consolation, I'm equally hard on myself, and am quite grateful to have my mistakes pointed out (once I overcome my mortification), such as when a friend recently informed me that there is only one 'f' in aficionado.  In any case, listing out the common mistakes that irk me has been cathartic, so I'm glad I did this.)

A recent article on LinkedIn, "Common Grammar Mistakes That Make You Look Dumb", has attracted hundreds of comments. Some of the comments touch upon the issue of native versus non-native speakers of English, but only a couple of them make the point that the mistakes made by the two groups tend to be quite different.

The kinds of mistakes made by non-native speakers of English are legion, and I can't afford to go into them in detail here. Just a couple of examples from my home country (India):

This is a Maharashtrian classic: "If I would have known, I would have told you" instead of "If I had known, I would have told you".

These phrases instantly identify the speaker as a North Indian: "Until it doesn't happen...", "Until I don't tell you...", etc. These are literal translations of the Hindi idiom "jab tak yeh nahin hua..." which uses the negative form of the verb.

Non-native speakers of English also have trouble with English phrases and idioms. Another Indian colleague once said, "I should not slip up this opportunity," instead of using either pass up or let slip.

Add to these examples the uniquely Indian words "prepone" (used as the opposite of postpone) and "updation" (used as the noun form of "to update"), and the phrase "revert to" (used to mean "reply to"), increasingly encountered in offices around the world as corporate India flexes its outsourcing muscle.

The mistakes made by native English speakers are quite different. But before I say anything further about these, here's a pet peeve - I don't like being referred to as a "non-native speaker of English" or a "person for whom English is a second language", as some of my Australian colleagues have occasionally done. I've been speaking English since I learnt to speak, so I certainly don't consider myself a non-native speaker.

Besides, I had the advantage of having had very good (read pedantic) English teachers as a child. One of them was my own mother, who was my English teacher for three years in primary school. An incident from those days remains in my memory. In a spelling test, I had misspelt the word "independence" as "independance". The test papers were handed back in class without comment, but I received an earful at home. When I protested that other kids had made the same mistake, my mother said simply, "My son cannot make mistakes in English." That sense of perfectionism and fierce pride rubbed off on me, and I think it's fair to say that I've grown into a pedant too.

When I migrated to Australia fifteen years ago, I was shocked at the spellings and grammar I encountered in the emails and notices written by my Australian colleagues. And with the advent of the borderless world that is the Internet, I can see for myself that the malaise afflicts other nominally English-speaking countries as well. I wasn't too surprised to encounter poor English from Americans, since I had been influenced by British prejudice right from my childhood ("There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years." - Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady). But it shocked me to see poor English from English people. Clearly, in the years since World War II, Great Britain has lost more than just an empire.

Why can't the English learn to speak?

Inspired by the LinkedIn article, here's my compilation of the commonest mistakes I've seen made by "native speakers of English". Interestingly, many of these mistakes seem to be exclusive to this group, because I had never encountered them during my years in India. Perhaps the reason is as former Indian Foreign Minister VK Krishna Menon put it to an English lady, "You merely picked it up. I learned it."

Lest this descend into mere finger-pointing, let me be constructive in my criticism. I've added examples that should illustrate the distinction between different terms.

1. You’re versus Your

You're worried about your children, aren't you?

2. They’re versus Their versus There

There go the Robinsons. They're showing off their new car, as usual.

3. Lose versus Loose

If the mooring comes loose, we could lose the boat.

4. It’s versus Its

It's ironical that celibacy is its own punishment.

5. To versus Too versus Two

This is too hard for one person to do alone. You need at least two people.

6. Then versus Than

Rather you than me. First you, then me.

7. Lie/Lay versus Lay/Laid

Dorothy laid the child down on the bed, then lay down beside her.
You must lay the bed if you want to lie on it.

8. I Couldn't Care Less versus I Could Care Less

"I couldn't care less" means I don't care at all.
("I could care less" just means I don't care at all - about English!)

9. Should Have versus Should Of

Writing "should of" indicates that you should have paid attention in English class.

10. Effect versus Affect

You've tried to effect change, but your efforts have had no effect. Your colleagues will affect great concern, but don't let that affect you.

11. You and I versus You and Me

You and I have had our differences, but between you and me, I'd rather work with you than with Jim.

12. Principle versus Principal

That's the main consideration. You could say it's the principal principle.

13. Accept versus Except

I'll accept your advice except when it concerns my private affairs.

14. Less versus Fewer

There's a lot less traffic after 10 pm, because fewer people want to go out at night.

15. Complement versus Compliment

You and your husband complement each other perfectly.
Thanks for the compliment!

16. Here, Here versus Hear, Hear

Where should the government be spending our tax dollars? Here, here! In this country!
Hear, hear!

19. Discrete versus Discreet

I have two discrete guest lists for the wedding, and only the first group is invited to the main ceremony. So be discreet when you talk to my friends about it.

20. Using 's to form plurals

Here's baby's milk bottle. After baby's had his feed, rest him against your shoulder and pat him gently. Babies need to be burped after a feed.

The New York Times has come up with a list of more subtle errors that their authors made (and their editors let slip).
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