Illiteracy Watch

Illiteracy Watch – or IW for brevity – is our irregular observation of the insouciant abuse to which the English language is daily subjected

IW1: Betrayed

£72 is rather expensive for a book, even a hardback. But The Betrayal – the Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence by Kim Christian Priemel (2016), which I bought the other day (we all have our quirks), is a text rich in detail from a world-class specialist, and published by Oxford University Press, a press synonymous with the finest quality. So it was a bit of a shock to read its opening sentence: “‘Why another book on Nuremberg, aren’t their [sic] loads already’ is, in all likelihood the question I have been asked most often while working on this project.’” Anyone can mistakenly type ‘their’ for ‘there’, especially someone whose first language is not English (Priemel is German). But it’s a shock to see such an expensive book with such a glaring and obvious error in its very first sentence – as if Oxford University Press had sacked its sub-editors or simply stopped caring about accuracy. Why bother about this slackness? After all, no-one died…only language got a little bit chipped.

IW2: The first causality of war


IW3: Gobbledegook

Illiteracy is not just a matter of bad grammar; it’s also about gobbledegook. This occurs with tedious regularity in online job ads, where there are lots of high-faluting words but the reader is left pondering what on earth the job entails, rather like this one on LinkedIn.

“—— is an expert services firm defined by HOW we solve challenges. Whether a client is facing an immediate business challenge, trying to increase the value of their company or protect against future risks, —— designs, develops, and executes tailored solutions by assembling the right combination of expertise. We build on this experience with every case, client, and situation, collaborating to create innovative, customized solutions, and strategies designed for today’s ever-changing business environment. This gives our clients unparalleled insight and experience across a wide range of economic, governance, and regulatory challenges. At ——, we know that collaboration drives results.”

IW4: Brexit means… goodness only knows

There was no greater enemy of jargon than George Orwell. Were he alive today I have no idea whether he would be a ‘Leaver’ or a ‘Remainer’ – but I do know he would write something about how the debate has become incomprehensible because it is cluttered with jargon. A few months ago the big argument was whether we should have a “hard” or a “soft” Brexit, but did anyone really understand the difference? Now we have the “implementation period” – is it better that this might be “prolonged”, or not? Is it the same as a “transition period”? The EU occasionally has “tunnel negotiations” over the UK, whatever that means. What is the “backstop position”? How does that differ from a “sub optimal functional border”? What would a “Canada plus” deal mean? Is a “facilitated customs arrangement” a disease, a kind of transport, or an imported sausage?

With the language that surrounds the European Union such a feast of the highly jargonised and the clotted cliché, can any normal human being make a balanced decision?

IW5: Their: There: They’re

The University of Newcastle on Tyne has been in the news because a student, Ed Farmer, died from an excess of drink in a stupid ‘initiation’ binge. An inquest has just reported that he had a cardiac arrest caused by alcohol poisoning following an evening with the university’s Agricultural Society.

The Boar, the student magazine of the University of Warwick, reported the inquest and quoted a ‘current student’ at Newcastle as saying that the Agricultural Society have already been in trouble again this year “as they’re rugby team has been suspended…” [sic].

The Boar is not run on a shoe-string; it lists 30 Warwick students on its site.  On its ‘About’ page it quotes Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian,  Janine Gibson, editor of Media Guardian, and Jon Snow, of Channel 4 News, as saying that it offers “a consistently high standard, like a fine regional newspaper with an outstanding magazine.”

Everyone is allowed a typo mistake; but the confusion of their, there, and they’re, almost as if it does not matter, does not augur well once these student journos get into proper jobs.