You do not know English until you master its idioms

Saturday March 26 2016

Students attend an English class in a private English school in Havana, on March 18, 2016. PHOTO | AFP

Students attend an English class in a private English school in Havana, on March 18, 2016. PHOTO | AFP  

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I readily agree that English is the most “difficult” language in the world. Its prepositions, in particular, are too wild and too scattered to be tamed easily. That, however, is the cross you must carry whenever — like official Kenya — you voluntarily latch onto that European language as your tool of daily business.

Though English is our medium of communication in tuition, in business and in governance, prepositions give just about every Kenyan no end of grief. I emphasise prepositions because, in English, they play the primary role in idiomatic expression, and idioms are the semantic power-house of any language.

I reiterate, then, that, in terms of impact, you do not really know any language until you have tamed its idiomatic system. Take the example of a headline on page 5 of the Monday Nation. Wrote a sub-editor: “Joho: I will contest for presidency in 2002 poll.” No, the omission of the definite article “the” from the noun “presidency” is not the problem.

In the pre-computer days, the telegraph was the best method of sending news from far-away situations. It was so expensive that the editors powerfully prevailed on their overseas correspondents to send news in as few words as possible — articles being some of the most obvious first casualties. But, as you all know, habits die hard.


For instance, Jewry still bans pork eating long millennia after practically every Jew has forgotten the real original cause of the sacerdotal ban, namely — probably — a mass feasting on the flesh of dead pigs that once caused mass deaths on some prehistoric occasion. Many of my Jewish friends find the ban ridiculous and simply dote on roast pig.

In the newspaper business, the computer has long replaced the telegraph as our chief technology for receiving news from afar. The extreme costliness of the telegraph was what forced newspapers to dispense with the articles a, an and the from the wired text. So even now — long after the telegraph was consigned to the museum of technological history — you almost never see articles even in headlines.

So it has been suggested that newspapers should dispense even with prepositions in headlines — a suggestion which reporters and sub-editors whose mother tongue is not English might vigorously welcome because English prepositions give reporters and sub-editors a great deal of grief (even in countries where English is the mother tongue).

Why is it that, although you can vie for a parliamentary seat, you cannot contest for it? Why is a question not to be asked because language is not a question of logic. You simply contest a seat (namely, without any preposition to the verb). That, of course, is why, with regard to language, the question “why” is usually a futile one.

Because each English grammar situation is governed by a clear rule, Mark Twain complains (in a laugh-a-minute book on his own struggle with the consanguine German language) that English is so systemless that there are more exceptions to every grammar rule than there are instances of it.