Above a headline proclaiming “Forged from the love of liberty” on page 25 of the edition of Tuesday August 6, we are told by the Trinidad Express that language matters.
But on Page One of the edition of Sunday September 4, the caption says that “Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley address the media on Friday following crime talks with the Opposition Leader.”
On Page One? On a Sunday, in theory the most read edition of any given week?
So does the Express really believe what it says? Might it be that the things that matter about language do not include grammatical accuracy? Or can it be that for them “Language matters” is necessarily a phrase rather than a sentence? I respect their right to take that view but I wish to remind them that it is a commonplace of communication theory that meaning is made at the receiving end.
And sometimes it is very hard to believe that language does matter in the Express.
On Tuesday, in her page 25 contribution on the National Anthem, Marlene Davis repeats the conviction of Dr Eric Eustace Williams, the late first prime minister, that Mr Patrick Castagne’s disputed plural verb in the National Anthem is correct.
“There is no need to change “find” to “finds,” she declares. Her reason? “The conjunction “and” adds plurality to the two items named.” One might not hold the view that the conjunction “adds plurality to the two items”—which, one imagines, were always plural—but one can’t argue with the essential message, can one?
However, Mrs Davis is not done. “Also,” she continues, “there is in literature a term, Greek in origin, known as euphony meaning: for good sound.” One may disagree with the punctuation but once more her essential point is valid; euphony matters. But does it trump the requirements of grammatical accuracy? Her unambiguous response is in the affirmative.
“Try singing the sentence with the suggested ‘finds,’ she advises, “and you will hear the offending ‘s’ ruining the flow of the sound.”
Go ahead. Try it. Does that added ‘s’ offend? Does it “ruin the flow of the sound” for you? I’m afraid that that’s utter twaddle! With or without the ‘s,’ we are dealing with a single syllable so it’s impossible for the disinterested ear to hear “the offending ‘s’ ruining the flow of the sound.”
But don’t tell the people at the Express that! Blithely, without blushes, they publish this stuff and ask no questions about its accuracy.
In the 1996 text Writing: a College Handbook, authored by Professor of English at Dartmouth College James A W Heffernan and John E Lincoln, no room is left for equivocation. In Section 19.8, titled “Recognizing Number – Special Cases,” they write:
“When a subject begins with every, treat it as singular:
Every cat and dog in the neighbourhood was on the street fighting.”
My suspicion, however, is that Mrs Davis at least senses that she is—not may be, is!—on shaky ground. “Besides,” she explains, “the (“every creed and race find”) sentence is more an expressed wish than a reality, and the use of ‘find’ in the Subjunctive Mood—which is our uncertain, wishful mood—may indeed be more prayerfully suitable.”
Ha ha! God bless you, Mrs Davis, you are too kind. The most casual reading of the National Anthem by a mind alert to these things raises questions about its author’s control of language. Who or what, for instance, is ‘forged’? Who are the ‘we’ referred to in lines 4, 5 and 8?
But the repeated line “May God bless our nation” leaves no doubt that Mr Castagne knows all about the Subjunctive. It is, therefore, a fair conclusion that, had he wished to make that “every creed and race” sentence subjunctive, he would simply have replaced the monosyllabic adverb ‘here’ with the monosyllabic auxiliary ‘may.’ That would demonstrably not have “ruined the flow of the sound.”
I want to end where I began, which is with the Express. But just so that no one gets the impression that I have it in for my former employers, let me cite an example from the Guardian, which makes clear just how widespread the problem is.
The caption on the back page of Tuesday’s edition begins with “Wale’s Gareth Bale….”
Here, then, are a few brief Express extracts, the first two from the edition of Sunday September 4 and the others from Tuesday’s edition:
“He reiterated that whatever changes are made,” Political Editor Ria Taitt writes on Page 3, “there would be no large Cabinet.”
Surely that “are made” makes the Future, far and away the PM’s and the PNM’s favourite tense, necessary in the main clause.
Further on, quoting Dr Rowley, she has this: “I acquiesced to that, under the understanding that the agency under the Constitution to treat with matters of this nature, would do its job…” The PM’s words, the writer’s punctuation.
On Page 7, my former student Gyasi Gonzales treats readers to this: “Unknown to staff at the time the man was able to coerce a mentally challenged 14-year-old girl and took her to an undisclosed location.”
“Coerce”? With an offer “of approximately $500 to $1000”?
Beside him on the same page, Sue-Ann Wayow, another former student of mine though in a different place, writes, “He had some advice if the PNM intends to remain in power: The first thing I think, people are despondent about is the crime situation, and there is only one way to deal with crime in this country. Start enforcing the laws. (…) It is things like that, that one would have been wanting to see.” Were both writer and proof reader, ha ha, ‘commatose’?
If language does indeed matter, I recommend, not for the first time, that the Express acquire several copies of Dr Roydon Salick’s new book, Getting it Right, and ensure that its reporters and copy editors carefully read as a matter of urgency the entire sections on punctuation and the Future and Conditional Tenses.
At the very least.