Category Archives: Words & Phrases

A Devalued Word: Awesome

Awesome has seriously lost its original value

Medal struck to commemorate Germany's 1923 inflation

A medal commemorating Germany's 1923 hyperinflation. The engraving reads: "On 1st November 1923 1 pound of bread cost 3 billion, 1 pound of meat: 36 billion, 1 glass of beer: 4 billion."

Like the German Mark currency in the days of hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, when the Mark became devalued to the extent that one US dollar equated to 4 trillion German Marks, in English as it is spoken now the word “awesome” has been devalued as a useful word, perhaps terminally.

The word  is made up of two words, awe and some, the “some” being a qualifier, indicating, with “awe” filling the role of something like “having the effect of inspiring or engendering awe”.

“awe” has its origins at the end of the 16th century, and is derived from the Old English eġe (pronounced ˈeːje). It’s old meaning is far removed from “awesome!” as meaning “ok” or “good”, or a word you use when you can’t think of anything else to say.

Its origins give a sense of fear and reverence, or amazement, as in this sentence from Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1918 work, The Land That Time Forgot (Chapter IV)

For several minutes no one spoke; I think they must each have been as overcome by awe as was I. All about us was a flora and fauna as strange and wonderful to us as might have been those upon a distant planet had we suddenly been miraculously transported through ether to an unknown world.

That was then, this is now. It’s not easy, but these days I try to not use “awesome” too freely in speaking or writing. Examples of where it seems to have no real meaning now are:

“Hi, I’m Des.” “Awesome!”

“We’ve just been to the movies.” “Awesome!”

The fact of the matter is that this once very useful word has been effectively stripped of meaning. It can now be legitimately employed to cover a range of meanings from okay, good, fun, cool, exciting, great, through to the older meaning of inspiring fear or reverence.

So it has really lost its power to communicate anything precisely or even approximately.

What to do?

I suspect that with my resistance to the contemporary meaning-less use of “awesome” I am doing a King Canute, trying to hold back the tide of usage (for King Cnut or Canute, see the section “Ruler of the Waves” in the Wikipedia entry).

But I do know that for anyone reasonably literate in English, the unthinking use of “awesome” in the “no meaning seriously intended here” way, i.e. as no more than a convenient noise to make, can mark the user as having a limited vocabulary.

I recommend thinking for a millisecond and using a more appropriate word or phrase.

For example:

“Hello, I’m James”  “Good to meet you , James”

“We’ve just been to the movies.” “That’s nice. What did you see?”

It’s not difficult.

Why Automated Translations Are Risky

When someone wants a translation into English and feel they cannot afford to hire a translator, it could be tempting to use an online service like Babelfish.

That might help in getting a bit of an idea, but it is risky.

Back in the 19th century, a couple of Portuguese translators produced an English phrasebook which was so bad it was reproduced for ages as a bit of a joke, under the title “English as She is Spoke”.

Someone has now gone one better and compared some Portuguese phrases with the translations in the original phrasebook and translations from the online Babelfish service.

Here is an example:

Portuguese: Vamos mais depressa. Nunca vi pior besta. Não quer andar, nem para diante, nem para trás.
Accurate translation: Let’s go faster. I never saw a worse animal. It doesn’t want to go either forward or backward.
That phrasebook: Go us more fast never i was seen a so much bad beast; she will not nor to bring forward neither put back.
Babelfish: We go more fast. Never vi worse crossbow. It does not want to walk, nor forward, nor stops backwards.

So be careful about relying on those online services!

Real Estate and the Roaming Apostrophe

The real estate liftout in the weekend newspapers is always a treasure trove of grammatical errors.

* Located in one of the most highly sort after areas of Tallebudgera Valley, you will be drawn into the peace and privacy of this large renovated family home.

Well, maybe you will be drawn in if you do decide to be located etc, but they really mean that the large, renovated family home is located there. And we have a by no means rare appearance of “sort after? instead of “sought after?. From years of reading the Sydney Morning Herald property pages I can attest that this error is not just a Gold Coast usage.

The roaming apostrophe has a field day and although my previous post here was on the apostrophe, I just have to list some of my finds from last Saturday’s Gold Coast Bulletin (?the Bully?) real estate section.

* The Seller’s have moved on, creating a great opportunity for astute investors.

* Having it’s own direct private access to the beach, ‘Breakers North’ is situated in a much sought after location.

Hmmmm, ‘Breakers North’: that’s one of the other amusing features of the real estate pages. Not content with letting apostrophes roam around to turn up where they don’t belong (?it’s own direct private access?), evidently the people who write this stuff don’t know that when you use quotation marks like that, either in the single or double formation, you are saying in effect that the item referenced is not real or is fake, or that this is the nickname of the entity (as in the previous paragraph here, “the Bully?) or quoting a word or phrase.

There is an extensive collection of erroneous uses of quotation marks, with some quite humorous comments, at The Gallery of “Misused? Quotation Marks.

More on these lines from the Bully:

* ‘Palm Springs Residence’ is a stunning Beachfront building that oozes style and sophistication (now there’s an original expression!) …

* Offered ‘For Sale’ by extremely motivated vendor’s apartment XXX is stunning… (so it’s not really for sale – and slipped a superfluous apostrophe in there too, as well as leaving out a comma before “apartment?)

* The Magnificence of ‘Marquis on Main’ (well, let us in on the secret, what’s its real name?)

English can be such a rich and expressive language. It’s a great pity that people understand it so little they have to hang little decorations on words in this way, no doubt expecting that this will make their copy more interesting, little realising that it just makes some people either laugh or feel sorry for them. 

There has to be a market for a basic guide to using English in real estate advertisements, doesn’t there? Maybe not.

And I acknowledge I may be fighting a losing battle on the use of “sort after? in place of “sought after?. A quick google on “real estate sort after? (without the quotation marks) gave me 13.2 million results! It was clear from reading a handful of them that the authors were deadly serious.

Pour encourager les autres

Hang on, this is my English lab isn’t it? So what am I doing with a post title in French? Well, it’s mainly because the English translation – ‘in order to encourage the others’ – doesn’t convey the meaning, or the nuance (another bit of French now Englished)of the French phrase.

By the way, nuance is a great word. It means a subtle difference in meaning, or opinion or attitude.

The original quote ‘pour encourager les autres’ is in Voltaire’s Candide, as quoted here by Alex Moffatt:

Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.
In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.

So ‘to encourage’ or ‘encourager’ is of course used ironically, to mean that you ‘make an example of’ someone in a prominent position, with the implication that they might not personally deserve such treatment, so that others who have prominent positions, and indeed people further down the line, will be put on their mettle, or put on their toes.

As the nightly tv news shows pictures of the riots in Paris and even the President’s intervention seems less than successful, I’ve been wondering whether the French Government might take the route so often taken in the past by kings and queens and now by governments, in various countries, and sacrifice some high ranking minister, police chief or other prominent person to mollify the mob and also pour encourager les autres.

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.