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TO ERR IS HUMAN

Published: 
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Did anyone happen to notice the grammatical faux pas I made in my column two weeks ago (February 26, 2017)? In the eighth paragraph, I wrote, “…the prospect of a third-party option continues to be a much sort (sic) after necessity.” The correct word should have been ‘sought’. This is called a homonym, which describes words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Taken by itself, the error is small enough that it could be forgiven. But what makes it worse is the fact that it made it past me, my father (who provides an objective opinion), and the editors of this newspaper. In truth, if it wasn’t for an email from a conscientious reader, I would have been none the wiser. In what I could only imagine was frustration over the frequency of poor writing and proof-reading in local publications, the reader rhetorically asked who’s to blame: the printer’s devil, having to meet a deadline, or just bad teaching? Regardless of the process or the people involved in taking my ramblings from electronic text to print, the buck, as they say, starts and stops here—with me. Looking back on it now, it really was a foolish mistake. But chances are it won’t be the last.

The English language is one of those things that a lot of people use but few know how to use it well. This is especially true for countries like ours where the existence of a colloquial alternative ends up taking precedence over the original. But in all fairness, even in Great Britain, the land of the mother tongue, the average Londoner probably sounds less like a stoic character from the Downtown Abbey serial and more like the fictional Ali G (a personality created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen).

However, while native speakers do recognise that there’s a time and a place for casual versus formal use, the prevalence of slang and the acceptance of improper phrasing and spelling has blurred the distinction between the two. Making matters worse is the irony that technological marvels like the word processor, equipped with real-time spell and grammar checking, do us a disservice by removing the burden of paying attention to accuracy. What this means is that we’ve traded skill for the sake of expedience and sacrificed self-confidence by relying on computer software. Which is probably what happened to me and my column two weeks ago.

When it comes to the execution of proper script and speech, the maxim that “practice makes perfect” holds true. And since both forms of communication are reflections of reading, then this is a practice that needs to be encouraged. Unfortunately, I often get the sense that Trinbagonians don’t generally think that such an exploit is worth their time and it’s surprising how many of our citizens openly admit to never picking up a book once their ‘school days’ are behind them. We don’t all have to be Nobel-level scholars or speak with a BBC accent, but reading means being informed and enables thoughtful expression. It can also help in avoiding embarrassing situations—something like what happened to former PNM senator Ms Sarah Budhu not too long ago. In an address to the Parliament on October 21, 2016, she mispronounced the name and misquoted the words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In her defence, if someone is unfamiliar with ancient Greek, it’s very easy to make such an error. Yet I still find it disconcerting that the senator never came across his name before; not from reading or in conversation, or even from a film or documentary. Of course, this is from the same political party whose minister of education gave us the word “breakfastes”, an utterance that now lives in infamy. So it’s not an isolated incident.

At the dawn of an independent T&T, our first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, who himself was a noted historian, placed great emphasis on the scholastic development of our young country. He noted the responsibility was on the youth who carried ‘the future of Trinidad and Tobago in their school bags’. While it’s one of his more famous and oft-used quotes, we’ve had limited success in fulfilling that imperative. It is true that the accessibility of free and compulsory education has resulted in a high literacy rate, but some of the population are just barely so, and others remain functionally illiterate. It doesn’t bode well that education is one of the sectors that receives the lion’s share of the budget and still leaves a lot to be desired with respect to collective performance.

If nothing else, Trinbagonians are a brass tacks people who tend to value common sense over book sense. They may not be able to quote Shakespeare, but they are smart enough to know that even ‘educated’ people can talk and write a lot of ‘dotishness’. It’s clear that anyone can make a blunder, even yours truly. But I appreciate it when readers call me out on them as it’s an opportunity to become a better writer. Because if “all the world’s a stage” you never know who’s paying attention to our words.

Ryan Hadeed

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