Tautology is the habit by East Africa’s users of English of wasting words by saying the same thing twice in the same semantic breath. A good example took place on page 15 of the March 6 issue of The Standard daily.
An overenthusiastic but misguided subeditor advised as follows in a screaming five-column headline: “Give incentives to spur retirement saving”. For those who have never heard of Their Excellencies, subeditors are men and women promoted from the general corps of reporters because – among other things – they have shown a great sense of news treatment and a greater mastery of general newspaper production.
Subeditors have also demonstrated complete mastery of the language that the relevant newspaper company has chosen as the medium through which to sell to the public such merchandise as adverts, features, news, opinions and pictures. A subeditor, in other words, is a desk-bound word technician and layout artist.
His or her education and practical experience enable him or her (a) to identify factual and linguistic holes in the copy submitted by the newspaper’s corps of writers and, therefore, to improve its content and its attractiveness and (b) to clean up the language, not only in terms of grammar but also – very importantly – in terms of idiom, aesthetics and other techniques of communication and social persuasion.
The subeditor’s task it is, moreover, to supply an accurate and suitably racy headline to the material submitted by the reporter, the feature writer, the leader writer and the personal columnist. For instance, where the phrases to spur and to give incentives are used contiguously in the same semantic breath, the conscientious subeditor is bound to raise at least one question.
Why is the reporter trying to sell to the public the same merchandise twice in a country like Kenya, where, although English is one of our self-chosen languages of upbringing, of public instruction and of governance, the language continues to pose such insuperable difficulties to most Kenyans, including to senior subeditors, top civil servants, members of Parliament, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps and even academia?
No, my question is perhaps wrongly put. For neither he nor she is doing any such thing deliberately. The answer to the question why the writer’s phrase passed muster is probably simply that even the subeditor who handled the story did not know that, semantically (in terms of meaning), the two phrases – to spur and to give incentive – mean more or less the same thing, namely, to motivate.
It is important to avoid repetitions of that kind because they tend to annoy the more socially and aesthetically conscious readers.
A newspaper that daily grates the intelligence and sense of beauty of its most educated readers is sailing through extremely dangerous waters because it risks losing many of those readers – and even advertisers – to its more conscientious competitors.
That is probably the most important reason that The Standard, Kenya’s only pre-independence newspaper, has steadily lost ground to the Nation ever since the latter began challenging it near independence.