Thursday, March 05, 2009

War on Chinglish (1)

In a word...... NO!!!

I'm not sure when the last time I used the phrase "in a word" was. See if you can find it anywhere on my blogs. I doubt it. I think I can get by from one year to the next without saying it, and I really don't think I've ever written it.

But in China it is ubiquitous. You will never - NEVER - read a piece of English (more than a few sentences long) written by a native Chinese speaker that does not include "in a word" at least once.

It's part of the wider vice of being addicted to conjunctions. The Chinese seem to be taught that every sentence should begin with a conjunction, and so they grope around desperately for one, regardless of how inappropriate or unnecessary it may be (another of my pet peeves is the use of adversatives where no contrast or inconsistency is in fact present). And "in a word", they have been told, is a fine way - the best, the only, the indispensable way - to introduce a summary or conclusion. No matter how long.

Now, I don't pedantically insist that you should only use "in a word" when you are going to sum up your view in a single word; although I do rather favour that approach (if you're going to use the dratted phrase at all). However, I do think you should limit yourself to no more than one very pithy phrase. Long sentences hanging on "in a word" just don't seem right. Whole paragraphs - definitely not.

It would be far better to drop this irritating tag altogether. Native speakers very rarely use it. Littering your writing with "in a word"s is definitively Chinglish.

Why does Chinglish matter? people often ask me. Some linguists suggest that we should tolerate and even respect and cherish such national idiosyncracies in the use of English.

And I acknowledge that most of the errors I aim to catalogue in this new series of mine, the quirks of language that are characteristically Chinglish, are relatively trivial and do not usually obscure one's intended meaning.

However, Chinglish errors are, I think, far more numerous and more hardwired than most of the 'first language interference' problems exhibited by non-native English speakers from other countries. And it's not only 'first language interference'. A lot of it is down to bad teaching (and decades of isolationism, and a nationalist arrogance that insists China can produce all its own English teaching materials and dictionaries rather than have to purchase them overseas).

These errors matter, I feel, because they are so frequent (and often so downright weird) that they are constantly distracting to other English speakers you may be trying to communicate with, constantly reminding them that you are not a native speaker, constantly breaking their concentration, constantly undermining their confidence in your communicative ability. The psychological impact of Chinglish, I fear, in diminishing respect and confidence, is far greater than its practical impact in compromising clarity or intelligibility.

In a word, DON'T.

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