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The Power of Words

When asked in a competition in 2007 why a fifth of Americans were unable to locate their country on a world map, Miss Teen South Carolina, a high-school graduate, gave this answer in front of the rolling cameras: ‘I do personally believe that US Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and I believe that our education like such as South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our… education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our children.’ You can see this evisceration of the English language on a YouTube clip, should you feel so inclined: it is excruciating.

The book I am currently reading is ‘Have You Eaten Grandma?’ by Giles Brandreth, who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but who turns out to be a writer of considerable wit, causing me on several occasions to laugh out loud in recent days.  The point of the book’s title is that the absence of a comma between ‘eaten’ and ‘grandma’ changes the meaning of the sentence from a polite enquiry about whether an older relative has consumed a meal to a much more sinister one involving the strong suspicion of inter-familial cannibalism!   Its contents share the same premise as ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss, which was published a few years ago and is another thoroughly good read about the importance of using our language properly.

Brandreth makes his key point early on in the book when he emphasises the value of good English to enhance life chances.  He says that all the research shows that the better the English you speak and write, the happier and more successful you will be.  People with better English get better jobs because they write better CVs and communicate more effectively in interviews.  People with better English are more likely to secure the partner of their dreams because, the research shows, when it comes to wooing, words are more important than looks, money or sex appeal.  He finishes his argument by saying that people with better English are healthier and live longer because they can understand and communicate better with doctors, nurses and carers.  Good English makes all the difference.

Later in the book, we are reminded of Dan Quayle, the US Vice-President under George H W Bush between 1989 and 1992, whose ineptitude is quoted at length, including the following gems:

  • One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice-president, and that one word is ‘to be prepared’;
  • I believe we are on an irreversible trend towards more freedom and democracy, but that could change;
  • The future will be better tomorrow.

Alas, he did not actually say the following, despite it being widely attributed to him: ‘I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.’

Some political analysts argue that he contributed to Bush losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton because, when he corrected a boy who had written ‘potato’ on a school blackboard by telling him to add an ‘e’ to make it say ‘potatoe’ (a clip also available on YouTube), he showed the American people that Bush lacked judgement for choosing someone so dim for a second time as his running mate.  Others claim that is was a smart thing to do to have the man a heartbeat from the presidency look like a fool because it may have deterred a potential assassin from delivering the people an idiot as their new leader.  How long ago and far away that all seems now, for all sorts of reasons!

Finally, my joke, not Brandreth’s, but how do you soothe someone upset by poor grammar?  You rock them gently and say, ‘Their, there, they’re.’

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