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.