One of the most common complaints received by newspapers and news websites is that their standards of English are slipping. Often these complaints come from other journalists.
It is true that newspapers and magazines — let alone humble bloggers — can no longer afford to hire vast armies of sub-editors and fact-checkers, and mistakes do slip through. But it’s also the case that some of the “errors” pointed out by readers are not technically errors at all.
The thing is that there is not just one version of English. The differences between British English and American English are well know, but just about every country where English is spoken and written has its own version. Indian English varies from Australian English — both of them incorporate unique words and usages — and the Canadians seem never to be sure whether they want to follow Oxford or Webster.
So, when we are trying to write for an international audience — as the web more or less dictates that we do — we need to be careful not to choose words, phrases and forms that might confuse some readers. I have a friend who is very fond of the word spruik. It, roughly, means to “talk up ” something or promote it vigorously. Sadly, though, it’s little known outside Australia, so it can’t be used in print in the country where my friend now lives. It works the other way around too, some words that are perfectly acceptable in America, for example, are considered quite rude in Australian English. I can think of two examples, but I won’t use them here.
The one constant in every place it is used, is that the English language is evolving. So what what is seen as a mistake by some readers may, in fact, be a reluctant concession by writers and editors that times are moving on. In the early 1980s, when I started in journalism, a colleague had trouble accepting that the word gay now meant homosexual to more people than it meant happy. He tried to resist the change — to the point of putting quotation marks around the word (possibly as a signal of disapproval) — but he had to finally concede the point.
Having said that, I am still holding out against some changes in English usage. Call me a pedant — go on — but there are some things up with which I shall not put.* Here are a few:
+ Unique. This is an absolute. Something cannot be a little bit unique, it either is or it isn’t. Why is that distinction important? Because if we don’t accept it, the language is diluted and we no longer have a useful single word to describe something that is one of a kind. Why use four words when you can use one?
+ Refute. To refute something is to prove it to be untrue. It does not mean the same as deny, although an alarmingly high number of writers think it does.
+ Collide. A collision involves impact between two moving objects. A car cannot collide with a tree, but it can hit it.
I know I can’t hold back the tide, but can we please cling on to these three, er, unique words?
One last thing: Muphry’s Law (yes, Muphry, not Murphy) states, more or less, that any article about correct English usage will inevitably include at least one error. I look forward to hearing from you when you discover mine.
* Actually, I’m cool with ending sentences with prepositions.