Just words by Bill Kirton
|Well, the post's sort of about Xmas, and it looks bare without a picture|
It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’, and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.
Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me, two examples which I thought were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined PR accent said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’
There are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers? But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’
I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.
The other example is grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the
France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one
sessions with students brought up in India and they often use a more formal register than that used by the majority of
British people. In this case, it was causing a slight problem. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine
the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man
wasn’t doing it right. The reason was that the person serving him was an
Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. It wasn’t that
the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often)
but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the
scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s
what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had
him baffled momentarily. But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are
many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I
only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the
woman’s use of ‘purchase’.
Language is constantly entertaining.