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A Kiap’s Chronicle: 27 – The UN Visiting Mission

A riffle in the timbers


TUMBY BAY - English must be terribly confusing for those coming to it as a second or third language. Native speakers sometimes struggle with it so imagine how people in places like Papua New Guinea get on.

I’ve been editing the work of Papua New Guinean writers for some years now and I’ve come to recognise some common errors they make.

Or are they actually errors? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

A common word that I often correct is ‘timbers’. To many Papua New Guinean writers it makes sense that if you have a piece of wood in your hand you are holding a piece of timber.

Therefore, if you have several pieces of wood in your hand you have a handful of timbers. Not so I’m afraid. The plural of timber is timber. You have a handful of timber. And you don’t have a handful of woods either.

Well, actually you can. A lot of trees together is both a wood and a woods. If you walk into a bunch of trees you are going into the woods but if you point out the same bunch of trees to someone you would describe it as a wood.

Don’t believe me? How about this from Shakespeare’s pen then, "Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him."  

But hang on a minute. What about that old sailor who keeps shouting, “Shiver me timbers?”  He’s talking about his ship’s timbers isn’t he? So the plural of timber is timber unless you’re talking about a ship. Is that clear? I didn’t think so.

And bye the bye, if you change a couple of letters around you have ‘timbre’. Is that another kind of wood?  Sorry, definitely not. It’s the quality of a note produced by either a musical instrument or a voice.

Sound is important in English. Both sound and sight are important and can often override proper grammatical considerations. Calling an armful of wood ‘timbers’ might actually be grammatically correct but it just doesn’t sound or look right.

Unfortunately, if English is not your first language you may not be as well attuned to the sound and sight of it and will be prone to mistakes that look okay to you but incongruous to native speakers.    

The Deputy Chief Justice, Ambeng Kandakasi, writing about a recent case in the Waigani Magistrates Court said, “All these running around are results of people not wanting the system to deal with them”.

What he should have written is, “All this running around is the result of people not wanting the system to deal with them”.

The swapping around of ‘this’ and ‘these’ is something I encounter a lot when editing Papua New Guinean writer’s work.

A similar thing happens with ‘than’ and ‘then’.  Someone might write, “It’s bigger then anything I’ve ever seen before” instead of “It’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before”.

Another one that gets people confused is ‘wonder’ and ‘wander’.  They will write that “the boy was wondering around the streets at night” when they mean that “the boy was wandering around the streets at night”.

Wonder means to think about something and to marvel at it.  Wander means to roam around. Their meanings are worlds apart but the two words sound so similar that people accidentally confuse them.

Advise and advice represent another tricky pair. Advise means to tell someone something or offer counsel. Advice is the counsel that is offered. Writers often say something like “he adviced her to sit down” instead of “he advised her to sit down”.

And then there are some really tricky ones that even native speakers confuse. A classic is ‘effect’ and ‘affect’.

Effect is the thing that happens as the result of an action whereas affect is the action itself. Affect can also refer to the process of assuming a stance as in an affectation.

These are all simple and understandable mistakes but sometimes it just comes down to bad spelling.

I recently edited a book in which there was a lot of shooting and gunfire. Throughout the text the word ‘rifle’ was rendered as ‘riffle’.

If you are ever held up by a raskol holding a riffle you don’t have to worry, there’s no such thing.

I’ve got lots more examples but you get the idea.

In the past I’ve made some terrible gaffes speaking and writing Motu and Tok Pisin and the cause is exactly the same, unfamiliarity with the language.

The only cure is practise and lots of reading.


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Arthur Williams

Someone sent this to me in 2012.

I never knew one word in the English language that could be a noun, verb, adj, adv, prep.This two-letter word in English has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that word is'UP.' It is listed in the dictionary as an [adv], [prep], [adj], [n] or [v].

It's easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP?

At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP, and why are the officers UP for election (if there is a tie, it is a toss UP) and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report? We call UP our friends, brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver, warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and fix UP the old car.

At other times, this little word has real special meaning. People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.

To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special.

And this UP is confusing: A drain must be opened UP because it is blocked UP.

We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night. We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!

To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look UP the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4 of the page and can add UP to about thirty definitions.

If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with (UP to) a hundred or more.

When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP. When the sun comes out, we say it is clearing UP. When it rains, it soaks UP the earth. When it does not rain for awhile, things dry UP. One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now . . . My time is UP!

Don't screw UP. Send this on to everyone you look UP in your address book . . . Or not . . . it's UP to you.

Now I'll shut UP!

Arthur Williams

I didn’t know that the BBC has had a Pidgin Service since 21 August 2017. However it is not for Melanesian countries. It is targeted at a West Africa audience

It explained: What is Pidgin?

A mix of English and local languages enabling people who do not share a common language to communicate
West African Pidgin English was a language of commerce spoken along the coast during the Atlantic slave trade in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

Widely used in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

Primarily an oral language, without a standard agreed written form.

Gives a few Pidgin words:
 I wan chop – I want to eat
 I no know - I do not know
 I no fit shout - I can't be bothered
 Wetin dey 'appen? - What is happening?
 How body? - How are you?
 Where you dey? - Where are you

You may care to read: 'How snake bite woman bum-bum for toilet' (Source www.bbc.com/pidgin/world-47005323).

An extract to whet your appetite (yuck) -

Madam Richards tell local media say, "I feel one sharp tap, na im I jump wit my pant for ground, come see wetin resemble tortoise wey get long neck dey enta back di water."

Or : Woman wan troway poo-poo, come trap for window
Source https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/tori-41171196

Seems by self-isolating i'm going kava-kava or long-long.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Ghoti is a creative respelling of the word fish, used to illustrate irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation.

gh, pronounced /f/ as in enough or tough;
o, pronounced /ɪ/ as in women
ti, pronounced /ʃ/ as in nation or motion.

Bernard Corden

Ghoti = Fish


Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree, Peter. We should be very careful about making fun of people whose first language is not English. That was not my intention in writing the article.

That said, sometimes the mistakes are highly amusing and worth repeating.

I might also add that I've learnt quite a few things that I didn't know about English in the editing process. Authors like Francis Nii and Arnold Mundua have drawn my attention to words I'd never encountered before.

Leonard Fong Roka showed me how to use words in unique ways that had never occurred to me before.

As Daniel points out the interchanging of 'been' and 'being' is another common mistake that I also encounter a lot. It's understandable too. Add a foreign accent to either word and they can sound very similar.

When I transferred from the highlands to Papua in the 1960s Motu was still common and I learned to be careful with certain words. Talking about eggs in Tok Pisin was quite dangerous in places like Kiunga.

Daniel Kumbon

I make mistakes all the time - rushed mistakes, guessing mistakes, careless mistakes, uncertain mistakes, spelling the way it sounds mistakes etc... The computer corrects these mistakes for me now.

I can understand all of the above mistakes made by somebody from PNG who does not have a computer. I can use my common sense to understand what he or she is trying to say because English is not our mother tongue. But we can not keeping making the same mistake when somebody makes an attempt to correct us.

I have to applaud teachers, editors, bosses etc who are patient to keep correcting their students or employees Or do they give up on such people and ignore their mistakes?

One reporter in one of the daily papers keeps getting confused with the word 'being' with 'been'.

I 'being' a PNGean is prone to make English mistakes. But having 'been' corrected several times for making the same mistake is cause for concern.

Now, read this for some fun .

"The driver drive with one hand and he think he is one..." is a line from a piece written by a student from Fatima High School many years ago.

I still remember it because it made many of us at Lae Technical School laugh in 1974. We imagined a man, this 'Yokomo' type person driving a car with only one hand.

And in his other hand, he could be holding a cigarette, a bottle of beer, a can of soft drink, or perhaps fondling his girlfriend to show her, he is somebody.

Peter Kranz

We Westerners shouldn't be the first to cast nasturtiums, after all even Australian prime ministers have been known to use hyperbowl and claimed to be the suppositories of all wisdom.

And as for Australians trying to tok pisin, I remember the reaction when asking for some milk 'mi wanim susu bilon bulamakau.'

Philip Fitzpatrick

PS Apparently the riffle groves in a sluice box are formed using riffle files.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I've got several Oxford dictionaries Chips, including a couple of old ones. The old ones are handy for looking up words that people no longer use.

Strangely enough riffle doesn't appear in the old ones but it does appear in a 2013 edition. Not as a riffle in a sluice box but as a verb meaning to "leaf quickly through (pages), "turn (pages) in quick succession" and "shuffle (playing cards), esp. by flexing and combining the two halves of the pack". The word also appears in my 1962 edition of Roget's Thesaurus as a synonym for scan. No nouns of that name however.

I'm not sure how you would load a sluice box to shoot someone however.

I've also got a 1953 set of encyclopaedia that my parents bought with time payments. They are an invaluable source of long forgotten information.

One of the really annoying things about editing by computer Baka are the writers who 'boilerplate' stuff into their texts from other sources without formatting it first. Not only does it skew the layout but it introduces blocks of text with different spelling rules, usually American.

It is, however, a dead giveaway for plagarism.

Dave Ekins

I have been collecting humorous examples of PNGlish for quite a few years. Some examples as follows:

Families, friends and relatives were up to their toes with high hopes.

They are all corrupt in their bones and are sick to this nation.

I disagree with people about Helas as reckless nor am I denying anything because, if you are a Papua New Guinean, you are lying to your teeth.

This is a cat and rat game being played.

It is also home to some of the finest natural gas ever unearthed on the surface of the planet.

If you become flies on stinky lamb flaps, you will reap it in the next five years.

People, the democracy of Papua New Guinea is under seize.

Gabion work should have started before the assault but MCJV turned blind ear and his son is now in jail.

They are of the same elk, aren’t they? Both men are thoroughly dishonest as the day is long.

Abal clinked onto the power for a short period of time while Sir Michael Somare was sick-ridden in bed in Singapore.

And if they do do it correctly, they can get everyone's thumps up.

...But they can steer the whip with confidence.

Oops! The cat's out of the basket.

Wolf with sheep cloth.

His whole story has been one of destruction of peoples lives, illigtament children, and then this rediculous family he made with his just as stuck wife.

So my message to you all. Vote both current Governmennt out and elect a fresh new bloods with intelectuals because they know whats happening in our country.

Legally or illegally Australian Government uses its tactics to rob us and milk us dry.

Soon we will be left skullton, after all our resourches finish they will stop the AusAid.

The latest victim of police brutality, identified as Ken Iralia of Tari, Hela Province, was allegedly punched and booted by two rouge cops in the cells of Hohola Police station after he was illegally detained.

To this 'wolf under sheep coating' project, I put my pen name to my posts. No devils avacoados here mate!

Peter Kranz

"O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this," - Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

And the last word should go to the Reverend Spooner. "Now the storal of the mory is this: If you ever go to a bancy fall, and you want a prandsome hince to lall in fove with you, don't forget to slop your dripper.”

Chips Mackellar

There is such a thing as a "riffle" Phil. It is where you find gold in a sluice box. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (New Edition), a riffle is "a groove or slat set in a trough or sluice to catch gold particles." However, it would be hard for a raskol to hold a riffle unless of course he was carrying the whole sluice box, or at least that part of the sluice box which contains the riffles.

Baka Bina

Thank you Phil, very enlightening.

I make so many of the mistakes you mention that sometimes I shrug it off and continue. I hope that I don't make people like Ed go mad at me. So far he hasn't but I know he cannot do the same corrections over and over.

You writing it here is cause for discussion

Another thing to mention is now we are all using computers. If the computer is set on American English and we are typing in Australian English and if writers don't check back to Australian English, these slips will not be picked up until another person reads it.

Paul Oates

I'm constantly reminded about the practice (noun) of practising (verb) my practice. Even the 'spell check' doesn't like it. Maybe that's part of the problem with US practical use of English?

Ian Ritchie

Speaking of woods, I have a bag of them but all are defective as my golf handicap confirms!

Peter Kranz

What I have come to call "PNGlish" can be endearing but based on an over-literal interpretation of English.

Sometimes it is just plain confusing, sometimes quite logical given the inconsistencies of English as she is spoken.

For example saying "Good night" to someone in PNG is just saying hello in the evening but in English it really means goodbye.

Calling just about anyone by the name of a family relation (Mother, Uncle, Cousin, Brother) is sweet but plays havoc with any official documentation.

Saying "I want to break your bones!" can be a declaration of passionate love, and "come and have some refreshments" is a friendly but quaint invitation to dinner.

"That which is not good" can be used for just plain bad, and brand names used generically in PNG can cause embarrassment, such as walking into a shop and asking for some bum bums when you want nappies.

Beer can refer to any alcoholic drink and spinning around is going for a walk.

My favourite is "you have a heart for the people" to describe someone who is kind.

Ian Ritchie

I licked this peace Fill ...

I'm an English speaker by birth and have been practicing for well over 50 year now and still get confused at times, so I tend to just accept the English which is presented to me in PNG.

I can usually understand the basic drift of the sentence and my teams English is a whole lot better than my Tok Pisin!

At least some of the problem rests with the Americans butchering a fair chunk of the English language.

I see a great deal of confusion, even in government documents with the words licence and license. "He can prove he is licensed to drive a car by his licence", where license is the authority to do so and licence is the card or piece of paper that proves that. Americans spell both as "license".

However the plural of many words often brings a smile to my face. One such example I get frequently is PPE (personal protective equipment). "I need more PPEs".

Another word grouping that causes no end of confusion is weather, whether and wether. "I wonder whether the weather will harm the wethers" with whether being a doubt (or even a choice or similar to "if"), weather being an atmospheric condition and wether being a de-sexed ram.

However, my own English is certainly not exemplary, so I tend to remind myself of the intent of the saying that people in glass houses should not throw stones.

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