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Wrestling with grammar: Complexities of the English language

By Bill Ward

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is a “word” invented by combining several words. It was used in a movie last century, “Mary Poppins,” starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (who?). You can actually break it down, not into one meaning, but into several meanings to conform to the different word syllables. Isn’t the English language wonderful in all of its complexities?

The number of words in the English language is: 1,025,109.8, estimated by the Global Language Monitor in January 2014. On a more practical level, “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged,” together with its 1993 Addenda Section, includes some 470,000 entries. “The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition,” is similar. One caution about the Oxford English dictionary, though. They’re the folks who give us “colour,” for “color,” and their punctuation is a bit different, too, in the “Queen’s” English.

But what of our medical, scientific and engineering terms? Should they be counted as part of our “vocabulary?” Then there are the Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts, and certain technical applications. We should count ourselves as lucky with only 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 of those obsolete. Actually, we only need 2,000 or 3,000 words for most everyday communications, including business.

Then there are those words that when combined with other words can create their own conundrums. Take, for example, set and up.

Use “set up” as a phrasal verb.

“Follow these steps to set up the new computers.”

Use “setup” as a noun.

“This illustration shows all the parts in the furniture setup.”

Use “set-up” as an adjective.

“See the operating instructions for Powerpoint on the menu above the set-up screen.”

And you thought all you had to do was write “setup” or “set up,” in whichever form you felt like using. I have a strong disdain for the jargon of the English language. An astute grammarian, Fern Rook, authored a nice book aptly titled, “Slaying the English Jargon.”

Look up a simple word in one of those dictionaries that defines the part of speech that the word becomes, depending upon its usage (or placement) in a sentence, such as “it.” This seems to be a fairly simple word, but “Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary” lists “it” first as a pronoun, and then states: “Used as the subject, direct object, indirect object, or object of a preposition for a non-human entity, an animate being, as a person or animal whose sex is unknown….” This is why you buy a dictionary that simply defines the meaning of a word without telling you how to use it.

Observe the use of the word “it” in the last paragraph. Since my last column, I have heard from several readers about one of their pet peeves concerning the use of “it.” It also can be used as a contraction. (No, not the kind of contraction your wife has when she’s having a baby.)

Contractions are made by shortening and combining two words, separated by an apostrophe. Here are some examples: can’t (can + not), don’t (do + not), and I’ve (I + have) are all contractions. Then there’s (there + is) it and it’s (it + is or it + has). When you use it’s in a sentence, it is easy to check the word for accuracy. Just ask yourself, if where you use its or it’s, whether “it is” or “it has” is more appropriate for what you’re (you + are) trying to say.

George said he would work on his car until its/it’s dark.

“Is that one of your car’s parts?” “Yes, that is its engine mount.” No “it is” is needed there.

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” (Winston Churchill)

“There is nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It’s a thing no married man knows anything about.” (Oscar Wilde)

“It’s been raining for a week, and now it’s starting to snow.”

(It has been raining … it is starting to snow)

“The cat carried its kitten in its mouth.”

“I think it’s going to rain today.” (it is)

“It’s been a very long time.” (it has)

Its’ is never correct.

If anyone tells you that you should never use contractions in writing, they’re wrong. It’s OK to use contractions in most writing, including newspapers and fiction. But be cautious; academic research has shown that lower-level readers might have some difficulty understanding contractions.

Generally, avoid contractions if you are writing anything that is formal, such as academic papers. If you write technical information, such a description of a product or instructions for operating a product, do not use contractions. If you are writing for school, ask your teacher if it is OK to use contractions.

Bill Ward is an MIT-trained technical writer-editor who has written a 400-page manuscript on the subject. He has taught technical writing and editing for adult professionals at Queens University in Charlotte. Contact him at wardwriters@carolina.rr.com .

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