There have been many takes on the phrase “English as she is spoke”, the title of a book written by José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolinho, first published in 1855. In his introduction to the US edition, Mark Twain penned these thoughtful words:
“Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.”
These words in this book with its memorable title have occupied my mind over the past two days as I read what can only be described as vulgar grammar, first in a tender document published by National Treasury and second in an article published by the huge media group, News24.
Perhaps the poor language in the tender document can be excused since it might not have been written by someone who earns his or her living from the craft of communicating English in an understandable way. Others will argue, of course, that a tender document should be crystal clear to avoid misunderstanding and ensure correct submissions.
It is the article published by News24 – a commentary by a contributor on the Economist Chris Hart’s recent tweets which have been interpreted as racist – that troubled me most. News24, after all, as a purveyor of news should be expected to edit articles it publishes so that they appear in a pristine form.
The article in question is pock-marked with vulgar grammar, making some of the sentences incomprehensible. A quick scan revealed more than two dozen grammatical and/or editorial glitches. The first few words of the article illustrate the point: “Firstly let me place on record that Chris Hart’s were problematic…”.
Chris Hart’s what? If one was following the debate one might subliminally insert the missing word, “tweet” or “views”, as one reads. But if one were not doing so one would simply shake one’s head in disgust at such an obvious omission, such a wilful neglect to proofread, such inept writing, and turn to a rival publication.
The problem is this is not an exception. One regularly sees examples of such abysmal writing in magazines and newspapers published in South Africa, and hear the same errors on news bulletins on radio and television.
It is inexcusable.
No wonder then that so many of those who come to the courses which Quo Vadis Communications offer also look at one with amazement when one speaks of getting one’s grammar correct. These are usually people who head or work in communication departments in corporates, government, and NGOs.
The good news is one is able to address these issues – very often simply by teaching people the discipline involved in writing.
But people also need to be open to learn about the importance of grammar, proofreading and editing. Unfortunately, many aren’t. Only when mindsets change, will our standard of communication in South Africa improve.