Analysing the wayward word

  • Mind Our English
  • Friday, 17 Feb 2012


Examining why a word is wrong in a sentence which is otherwise correct.

WAYWARD? The word is an aphetic variant of Middle English awayward, a combination of away “from this or that place” + suffix -ward , “a native English suffix indicating spatial or temporal direction” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989).

The word wayward commonly means “difficult to control”. Webster’s (loc. cit.) includes the meaning “turned or turning away from what is right or proper” – and it is in this latter sense that I use the word in the title of this article.

“Choosing the right words is everything in communication” (J. Jaaffar, in New Straits Times, Feb 4, p24). I should like to follow up on this tack.

Our daily newspapers – and these include copy from foreign news agencies carried in our papers – are a great source of news and reports and analyses, but often we find in them text of proper, or even beautiful, construction, except for the odd words that do not quite fit into context because: (a) the word is correct but is wrongly positioned; (b) the word is correct but is in the wrong form; and (c) a sound-alike or look-alike word is used in place of the correct one. Such wayward words have the habit of appearing again and again. Not to point them out is to condone the situation to the extent that such words or their usage become so common that they have the tendency to become accepted as the norm. For the sake of my fellow learners of the language, I set out below some examples of waywardness (underlined) excerpted from our dailies.

“... a cyclist involved in a road rage incident said he would sue Warne for damages to his bike.” – An AFP report carried in The Malay Mail, Feb 1, p42. Damages is a legal term. Replace with the everyday term, damage.

“Police seized several documents from a firm ... including a sales and purchase agreement between ... and ...” – The Star, Feb 4, p29. The proper terminology is Sale and Purchase Agreement, with the singular noun sale balanced against another singular noun purchase.

“Former MPs paid tribute to a man (Dr Toh Chin Chye) whom they said made significant contributions to Singapore ...” – Report in The Straits Times/Asia News Network, carried by The Star, Feb 4, p39. Whom is not the object of the verb said; rather it is supposed to be the subject of the verb made. Amend whom (in the accusative case) to who (in the nominative case).

“Expect similar treatment of Obama, who Romney will portray, as he does on the campaign stump, as a European-style socialist ...” – Report from Guardian News & Media 2012, carried in Sunday Star/Dots, Feb 5, p3. The relative pronoun who is supposedly the object of the verb portray. Change who to whom.

“Such a sweet deal could make Beyonce one of the highest paid entrepreneurs in the industry, although the US$500 million figure touted by the website does seem somewhat inflated, even for a star as big as her.” – A DM report, carried in New Sunday Times, Feb 5, p47. The pronoun “her” is at odds. This pronoun (in the accusative case) would be correct after a preposition like like, as in “... even for a big star like her”; but after the conjunction as, the pronoun should be in the nominative case, thus: “... even for a star as big as she (is)”, where the verb is that follows from she is understood.

“To safeguard crops and ensure a bounty harvest, the farmers were said to worship a “water dragon”, whom some believed to be a crocodile ...” – The Star/Star2, Jan 22, p6. Firstly, change the noun bounty to the adjective bountiful. Secondly, change the relative pronoun whom (which is applicable to people) to which (which is applicable to animals and things). (Note: the relative pronoun that may be used in place of whom or which, and be applied to people and animals and things.)

“Exclusive bungalows in the sky”, read the headline in The Star/StarSpecial/Penang Property Focus, Jan 23, p8. A bungalow, a word derived from Hindi banglo, is “a one-storied thatched or tiled house, usually surrounded by a veranda” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, 1989). The term generally refers to a single-storey house set within its own compound, although, in Malaysia, the house may be of two storeys. In the promotion advertised above, a bungalow is presumably of one storey (or two storeys?) – even when the term has turned wayward and the product has turned skyward!

“Further, it (the tradition to use of banana leaves to serve food) is environmental friendly ...” – The Star/StarMetro North, Feb 2, p3. Here are two adjectives, environmental and friendly, in an unseemly juxtaposition and qualifying the noun tradition, i.e. “the tradition is environmental” and “the tradition is friendly” – but they do not quite convey the intended sense. Convert the two adjectives to an adjective modified by an adverb, thus: “environmentally friendly”, OR convert them to a noun and an adjective to form a compound adjective, thus: “environment-friendly”.

“The couple marries, ...” – From synopsis of a movie, in Sunday Star/Star2, Feb 5. In this context, couple may be defined as “two people in a special relationship”. (Note: in this day and age, the two people need not be of the same sex!). In British English, the word is usually used with a plural verb (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2010). Therefore, “the couple (= two people, plural) marry (plural) ...” Note, however, that American English tends to use collective nouns with the singular verb.

“Many were excited to discover that eggs could ‘stand’ (on their ends) between 12pm and 1pm yesterday. According to a theory, this phenomenon is only possible at the exact time and date during the spring and autumnal equinox.” – New Sunday Times, Feb 5, p7. Firstly, there are two equinoxes: for balance, convert “the spring and autumnal equinox” to “the spring and the autumn equinoxes” or to “the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes”. Secondly, what does “12pm” really mean? I note that times, in “newsspeak” style, are written not as “12 p.m.” and “1 p.m. but as “12pm” and “1pm” – that is, (a) there is no intervening letterspace between the number “12” or “1” and the letters “pm”, AND (b) “pm” is the newsspeak equivalent of the abbreviation “p.m.” for post meridiem “after noon”. In fact, there is no point in time designated as “12pm” or, for that matter, “12am”. Instead there are “12 noon” (which I suggest be written, newsspeak-style, as 12nn) and “12 midnight” (which I suggest be written, again newsspeak-style, as 12mn). Now for the excerpt: Was the phenomenon possible “between 12mn and 1pm” (a stretch of 13 hours) or “between 12nn and 1pm” (a stretch of one hour)? Finally, the position of the adverb only is questionable. Is the phenomenon “only possible at the exact time ...” or “possible only at the exact time ...”?

“... Lim also questioned why the expressway (from Banting, Selangor) was only built until Taiping and not Penang ...” – Sunday Star, Jan 29, p15. The preposition until means “up to the point in time or the event mentioned” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2012), and is therefore not applicable in the above context, which purports to mean “up to a point in space”. The word until should be replaced by the words up to. Furthermore, the adverb only, which is wrongly placed, should be re-positioned immediately before the noun Taiping.

“... vacating all posts is the most matured way of dealing with the problem ...” – The Star, Feb 3, p20. Some words may function as both adjective (or modifier) and verb (e.g. articulate, mature, separate, surprise), and it is important to distinguish between the two functions when using such words in context. The suffix -ed is added to verbs but not to adjectives, thus……: (1) articulate speaker vs articulated truck; (2) mature adult vs matured wine; (3) separate rooms vs separated items of clothing; and (4) surprise package vs surprised burglar. (Note: the suffix -ed may also be tagged onto nouns, e.g. fabled land, gated compound, renowned sailor, wooded area – but that is another story ...)

“... Proton is a national agenda which supercedes all other interests ...” – The Star/StarBiz, Feb 2, p3. Note the word supercedes, spelt with a “c” above. Also note other words also spelt with a “c”, e.g. accede, concede, precede, recede and, alternatively, exceed, proceed, succeed. The latter two sets of words share a common etymology: they are made up of a prefix plus the Latin root cedere “to go, to yield, to give way”. However, supercede (sic) is not related to them. The correct spelling is supersede, spelt with an “s”, having been derived from the Latin root sedere “to sit”.

“Nothing in our constitution states we must have a certain amount of people as members ...” – The Malay Mail, Feb 2, p12. For a countable noun such as people, substitute number for amount.

“Transport Minister ... said less people were killed in road accidents between Jan 16 and Jan 23 this year ...” – Caption to photograph in New Straits Times, Jan 25, p9. For the countable noun people, substitute fewer for less.

“Whatever it may be, the move is better late than ever.” – New Straits Times, Jan 20, p27. The sentence may pass muster in speech (where “better late than ever” may be heard as “better late than never”) – but not in print.

“... this big-budget South Korean film features many great-looking CGI dragons that wreck havoc on Los Angeles.” – New Straits Times, Jan 20, p 22. The correct word is wreak – although the result of the action is still the same!

“Indonesia has tried just about everything to keep passengers from clamouring to the roofs of trains that crisscross the main island of Java ...” – An AP report, carried in The Star, Feb 7, p28. The word clamouring should be replaced by clambering.

“Many would think that politicians are philandering the nation’s resources ...” – Sunday Star, Jan 29, p22. The underlined word is wrong on two counts: (1) philander is not a transitive verb, as spuriously used in the text; and (2) philander, applicable to a man, means to “readily or frequently enter into casual sexual relationships with women” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004). Nowadays we sometimes read of homosexuality (including sodomy and lesbianism) and bestiality – but making love to money ... Heavens! That takes the cake. In the above text, could pilfering be the intended word?

Parting shot

I have a liking for the word like. It is a noun (he dotes on spaghetti, lasagne, ravioli, and the like), an adjective (there is a book of like size over there), a verb (they like to swim), and a preposition (she is like her mother).

Now the waywardness in the use of the word. Like is a conjunction, but only in informal speech and in writing “when it is a reflection of speech” (D. Crystal, 1991. Making Sense of English Usage, p78 – do like I do; the election was postponed like he predicted). Finally, like is categorised as an adverb, used in a way which I opine to be way too wayward for my liking. For example, most people are like “No need to bother with mistakes in print”, but I am like “Hey, why do I care?”

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