Monthly Archives: October 2005

Double Whammy: Misused Quotation Marks and Apostrophe

You would think that a company offering ‘executive’ coaching would want to impress the world with its professionalism, wouldn’t you?

So who was in charge when a company put up its website placeholder (there are no evident links beyond the front page) and included the tagline ‘Be known for “Leadership at it’s Best”‘?

Not content with inserting an apostrophe where none was appropriate, the person or persons responsible have included quotation marks around the phrase Leadership at its Best. This is a basic and all too common error. Used in this way, the quotation marks signify grammatically that the company is joking or not offering the real thing when it offers Leadership at its Best. In other words, when people use quotation marks in this way to lend emphasis to a word or phrase, they are actually subverting their own communication.

Food shops that advertise products as “fresh” or “organic” evoke probably needless concern among many customers who know their use of quotation marks. It’s unfortunate that shopkeepers choose to undermine their own business in this way.

For an archive of examples that will appal or amuse you, or both, check out the Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks. To give just one example:

Sign on friend’s front door
Doorbell “out of order.” Please “knock” or “rattle” letterbox.
Is your friend wondering why nobody comes to visit anymore?

There is a brief explanation of the correct and incorrect use of quotation marks, with examples, at this site.

The Business Value of Excellent English

Yesterday a colleague asked me to comment on a business proposal. When I’m asked to do this, I endeavour to focus on the business argument and how persuasive it appears to be. I am usually also drawn to comment on aspects of grammar and style or expression. 

Lately I’ve hesitated to do that, because I’ve often found that when people ask for comments they really mean they want to enlist you as a supporter and asking for comments is a way of engaging your interest. They can become quite defensive if you suggest changes to the way they have expressed themselves in the document, because that wasn’t what they *really* wanted!

I can also be sensitive to criticism of *my* prose style, but on balance I would much prefer that friends or colleagues gave me a critique, rather than my finding out the hard way, from the market, that I could have done better. The only thing worse is to never find out and keep repeating the mistakes! 

The fact is, I see the business value of excellent English, written and spoken, as a fairly self-evident ‘given’.

Now I acknowledge that my attitude is almost certainly due in part to two facts: a) my parents – and various relatives – were school teachers; and b) I was a school teacher – and an English and History teacher at that! So sometimes I have been inclined to be pedantic, which comes from an Italian word pedante for ‘teacher’ and which the online defines as: Characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning and formal rules: a pedantic attention to details.

But my teaching days are long gone and I now have years of experience in the public service and in business, which has tended to make my English expression more practical and down to earth than it used to be.

I’ve found consistently over the years that striving for excellence (not pedantry) in English expression has never been a waste of time and has often meant that I achieved my communication goals faster than if I had been careless about what was being stated and how it was being phrased.

I do take some pride in my knowledge of English and its subtleties but I also accept that there are plenty of people with deeper knowledge and better skills than mine. There is also, always, room for improvement. However capable I have been able to become about expressing myself in written English, I know that there are always going to be people who can take apart what I write and show me how I could do it better. Fortunately I’ve met a few of those and they’ve done just that. If I want to get something really right I get a journalist friend to go through it – he usually savages it, but for the better. I got over my wounded pride about that long ago.

Part of the exercise in any sort of a bid document or pitch document is not to thoughtlessly provide meaningless distractions by way of poor grammar or clumsy style. Excellence in expression allows your reader to concentrate on what you want them to concentrate on. That’s where people who don’t understand punctuation and grammar, for example, get it wrong when they say all that ‘grammar and style stuff’ doesn’t matter. It could matter to your reader subconsciously and even consciously. If it does, you are making it harder for him or her to believe that you are thorough and rigorous enough to provide them with consistently excellent service or with products of relentlessly consistent high quality.

That doesn’t mean that our English expression should be flowery and full of big words. Far from it. Plain English is in short supply and is appreciated by time-strapped business people.

Bullet points are also good. A client of mine once told me he liked my reports but as he and his colleagues in the executive group were mostly engineers, it would be good if I could use more bullet points. I learnt to do bullet points, with the result that:

  • I could get my arguments across more effectively
  • People appreciated my taking the trouble to change the format of my reports
  • The client kept paying me!

My Favourite Sign with a Confusing Apostrophe

Years ago, the Yatala Pie Shoppe was a landmark for Australians and visitors travelling by road between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The coming of the 2×4 lane motorway saw the end of the old establishment, although the business was bought and re-established at a new site down the road from the old one.

Although I never visited the original pie ‘shoppe’, I was always amused, driving back and forth from Brisbane over the couple of years I lived there, to read the sign

‘Yatala, famous for it’s pies’.

Of course, it is (or it’s) not uncommon for signs in public places to have apostrophes where they should not be, but if we think about what the apostrophe signifies, some of the results can be quite amusing. My Yatala example has always amused me because it means, literally, that the town of Yatala is (made of) pies!

One of the most common mistakes in written English is the misplacement of the apostrophe. And it is a mistake by no means comitted only by people whose first language is not English. I am often surprised by finding incorrectly placed apostrophes in otherwise quite literate writings by apparently quite well educated people, including Australians and Americans whose first language is English.

So why is this such a challenge?

My hunch is that, quite simply, the significance of the apostrophe – i.e. what it ‘signifies’ – has never been explained. And I wonder is that in part because the apostrophe actually signifies something that isn’t there! Because the apostrophe, as in ‘it’s’, ‘he’s’, ‘who’s’ and so on, is in grammatical terms a ‘mark of elision’ – that is, the sign of a vowel or a syllable that has been ‘left out’.

That should clear enough for ‘it’s raining’ meaning ‘it is raining’ and for ‘do you know who’s coming? for ‘do you know who is coming?’

Where it seems to get complicated is in its use as a sign of the possessive, i.e. something belonging to or being owned by someone or something, as in ‘John’s coat’, ‘Rebecca’s dress’.

The basic idea to remember here is that the possessive use comes from an older form of English, where there would have been a letter ‘e’, now replaced by an apostrophe. This is explained clearly at The Dreaded Apostrophe site.

One of the most common errors in using apostrophes these days is as a form of the plural. Thus the plural of CD is written erroneously as ‘CD’s’.

There is an amusing cartoon about the apostrophe here.

My brother, travelling some years ago in a country where little English was spoken, was asked by a shopkeeper how to know when to use the apostrophe. My brother suggested, wisely, that the best approach might be not to use it at all. And that would be my suggestion for anyone unclear about when and when not to use the apostrophe – less chance of showing you don’t know if you leave it out than if you put it where it should not be.

There is a more formal introduction to the use of the apostrophe in this Wikipedia article.

English Use and Usage

This is the first of a series of posts on English use and usage. My intention is that, over time, the collection of posts – under the category ‘Words & Phrases’ – will be helpful for people wanting to extend their knowledge and appreciation of the English language.

My preliminary intention was to write about ‘difficult’ words and phrases. On reflection, I decided that in doing so I would be helping to perpetuate the idea of English being a ‘difficult’ language. My belief is rather that English is an ‘interesting’ language. It is a living language and as long as it is living, it will be constantly changing and adapting, taking on new words and forms: it will never be able to be pinned down.

It’s not that I don’t recognise that people coming new to English can find it a challenging language. I do recognise that. By the same token, I found Latin, Greek, French and German ‘difficult’ when I first attempted them. I would be hard put to express myself in any of them these days, but I don’t see them any more as intrinsically ‘difficult’. My view now is that that learning any language can be challenging and if you decide that it is going to be an ‘interesting’ journey you will inevitably learn more, and more enjoyably and effectively, than if you embed in your subconscious mind the conviction that the language is ‘difficult’.

So my aim in this series of posts is to write about words and phrases that I find interesting. I hope my readers will also find them so.

Some of the posts, like this one, will seek to shine a light on distinctions between similar words and between words which have quite different meanings but are sometimes used, inappropriately, as if they meant the same thing.

Use and usage

It seems a good idea to start this series with a fundamental distinction, between use and usage.

What is the difference between ‘use’ and usage’? Both come from the same Latin word usus (noun), which in turn is from the verb uti – to use. So how do they differ?

The difference is subtle but useful.

The noun ‘use’ comes from the verb ‘use’, meaning to employ for a given purpose or put into action, and larger dictionaries will list many variations and adaptations of that basic meaning. Examples are: ‘I use a keyboard to type in these words’ ‘I use a knife and fork to eat my dinner’, ‘I use short words in speaking with small children, because they probably won’t understand long words’. So the noun ‘use’ (with the ‘s’ as in ‘goose’, not, as for the verb, as in ‘cruise’) means a given purpose or application. Examples would be: ‘The English language is in common use around the world’ , ‘I put my keyboard to good use’.

For the noun ‘usage’ the basic dictionary definition can look pretty much the same as that for ‘use’, but with ‘usage’ there is a sense of ‘continued’ or ‘common’ use. And with language, the distinction is that ‘usage’ is the way the language is actually used, as distinct from what might look correct if you try to construct a sentence or phrase from a dictionary and grammar book. Examples would be: ‘Although old-fashioned grammarians say you should never split an infinitive, that is done every day in common usage.’ and ‘I was taught at school that every sentence must have a verb, but actual usage shows that many excellent writers include in their work ‘sentences’ without verbs, such as ‘His arrival at any gathering was always a dramatic event. Bold. Arresting.’

How useful is this distinction? Well, in everyday life it probably doesn’t have a lot of application, but for me it is an interesting distinction, partly because of the origin of the words. As indicated above, both use and usage come to us from the Latin usus, but usage has arrived via Old French, from the 14th century AD.

But there is a very practical consideration here.

Anyone who wants to be a highly confident, fluent speaker of English would do well to develop an insatiable curiosity to know the appropriate usage, which is a way of employing language at a higher level than technically correct use.

For those who want to have a ready reference on this subject, I recommend The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  

My English Lab – Introduction and Statement of Purpose

Hello and welcome!

This is my first post to this new blog – My English Lab.

The purpose of the blog is to help people understand, and hopefully to learn to love, or love more, the English language in all its richness as well as in its practicality for social and business communication.  

English is my mother tongue, and it took me a long time to gain even a glimpse of how difficult English can be to learn as a second or later language. I had to go to Germany to find out.

As a young teacher I had taught English in Australia to adolescent boys, most of whom had English as their first language. While they might not have always enjoyed my teaching, I doubt that they were fundamentally mystified by the language.

Then I went to teach English in Germany and I started to understand how illogical, mystifying and downright confusing English can seem for people who have not had the opportunity to learn the language at their mother's knee.

In Germany I was a private teacher (Privatlehrer) of English to a well-educated family, most of whom were already quite fluent in English. Why was I there? They wanted – and intended – to understand and speak English as perfectly as if it were their first language. In pursuit of that goal, my employer required me to provide practical illustrations, in the form of complete, typed up sentences, for every word I used which they did not previously know or understand. My recollection is that in the manual of examples I produced over a six month period, there were on average three illustrative sentences for every word.

That was not a trivial task and I've often regretted that I did not carry with me when I left a copy of all that work – manually typed by me in the days before word processors! There was definitely a book in it.

A lesson I learnt in those months, and quite painfully at times, was how uncomfortable it can be to live and work in a place where few people speak your language fluently and some not at all. I can still recall my intense frustration that with some of the local shopkeepers and even with the aid of a pocket dictionary I could not communicate even quite simple matters. One that sticks in my mind is failing to get the barber to understand that I wanted just a light trim, not a full haircut. How I would like to have that option today! 

I had studied elementary German at university, but it was just that – elementary – quite inadequate to enable me to deal effectively with a lot of day to day matters, let alone have any profound or meaningful conversations on matters of the intellect – or the heart! 

Following that experience, I taught English and History in England for six months. Although there were two or three students from Hong Kong with limited English, the great majority of the boys I was teaching had English as their first language. That was a whole lot easier for me in a way, but also difficult and frustrating. I suspect that the difficulty and frustration may have come in part from the fact that these students thought they 'knew' English and seemed to have little desire to improve their knowledge and skill – unlike my German family, ambitious to understand and speak the language perfectly (whatever that might mean, but that's another topic). 

In the intervening years I have done a lot of writing and public speaking for different purposes and different audiences, and have not taught English formally. But old habits die hard, and I have always enjoyed taking advantage of the opportunities that have arisen from time to time to explain and illustrate aspects of English usage to people who do not have English as their first language: this has mainly been over the internet.

Then recently I was introduced to a company, EN101, which provides English language training online and after not many months of being in business is already providing its services in most countries around the world. Having studied the company and the credentials and values of the people behind it I thought, here's a chance for me again to do something I love, share my knowledge of English with people who either have no English or who may know English in its written form but have difficulty speaking it. And this can all be done online. EN101 also offers Spanish language training just now for the benefit of those who already speak English and will be offering other languages progressively. But as I've indicated here, I have a particular interest in helping people learn English or learn to use it more effectively.

And being a blogger, I naturally thought about creating a blog to help me do just that.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that blogging and podcasting are made for this situation.

Hence this blog – My English Lab.

Here are some of the ways I intend to use this blog, as an online resource for people wanting to learn, or become more proficient in, English:

  • I will write about words and their usage, giving practical, English as spoken, examples
  • I will answer questions, through the commenting facility
  • As I find examples of interesting words or phrases I will post articles about them here
  • People will be able to search on words or phrases I've written about
  • If the words or phrases are not here, people can email me, and then I will post about the words or phrases they are finding bothersome, confusing or just interesting
  • With podcasts, I can provide audio examples of how various words and phrases are spoken
  • I can provide links to potentially helpful resources and articles, both the ones I know about or find and ones that are suggested to me by readers.

So is this site going to advertise the EN101 product (currently English and Spanish language learning) and/or the business opportunity? Definitely.

Will it be possible to learn from here and get answers to questions without buying the product or connecting with me on the business side? Definitely.

It is my intention that this blog will be fun for me and for readers, as well as being educational (and we all know anyway that it's easier to learn when we are having fun).

It will also be in good taste, especially as I hope families, not just individuals, will be able to benefit. In that regard, I reserve the right to delete any comment or decline to respond to any enquiry that I consider to be inappropriate in content or tone, whether for matters of good taste or consideration for the feelings of others.

So here's to fun with English in this little corner of the Internet and the blogosphere 🙂