Master the little things that matter in English or you’ll embarrass yourself

Friday April 21 2017

 English lesson

Pupils of St Kevin Hills Academy answer a question during an English lesson on September 21, 2015. English is today the most effective language in which to publish a book. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By PHILIP OCHIENG
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Because of its global reach, especially in terms of both vocabulary and idiom, English is today the most effective language in which to publish a book and a newspaper in most parts of the world.

That is why, in Kenya, the authorities concerned must do something to stem the flagging fortunes of that language, as is made manifest by the mouths and nibs of all our leaders, through the pages and airwaves of all our news media.

The way I see it, it is a shortcoming that must be blamed squarely on the manner in which we teach that language at all levels of our classroom system — from the nursery school to those pursuing the doctorate degree.

WRONG USAGE

Take the following as a newspaper headline: “How fight for lucrative Chinese deals mask faceless firms in leaders’ books”.

I culled that example of Kenya’s deepening poverty of English from page 4 of The Financial Standard (a pullout of the April 18 number of The Standard daily).

Bravo to him or her who can understand it.

In the simple present tense, surely, the third person singular noun fight must take the verb form “masks” (with an “s”).

But in that example, even the simplest logic has gone haywire.

To be quite sure, the readers will have been interested in how that process works.

But please try to advertise it in acceptable grammar.

APTITUDE AND SKILL

That is why I italicise the verb mask in that expression — namely, so as to remind everybody whose daily work vitally depends on English that, in elementary grammar, the verb should be masks (with an “s” at the end), not simply mask.

Let me generalise this fact about English. Every verb whatsoever must take an “s” at the end whenever the action that it stands for is attributed to a singular third person (“he”, “she” or “it”), namely, in conformity with the behaviour of every English verb whenever, in the simple present tense, it is controlled by a grammatical third person singular noun or pronoun.

In all print media companies, a person is promoted from the corps of reporters to the desk of news processors (called sub-editors) usually — among other things — because the person has shown some aptitude and skill in handling the language through which the newspaper company has chosen to sell its merchandise (namely, its advertisements, commentaries, features, news and picture captions).

THE RULE
In our example today, the sub-editor has miserably failed to remind the reporter that, in such a simple present-tense expression, fights (with an “s”) is the form that the verb must take whenever, in the structure of the given sentence, it is controlled by a singular third person noun or pronoun.

That is why, in the above case, the verb must be masks (with an “s”), not simply mask.

I want to stress for the umpteenth time that, in the simple present tense, this is the rule that governs every English verb controlled by a singular third person noun — or pronoun (he, she and it) .

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