OCHIENG: Be accurate when using Latin words - Daily Nation

Be accurate when using Latin words

Saturday August 25 2018

Loreto Girls High School

Loreto Girls High School Kiambu students reading the Sunday Nation. Certain Latin words and phrases have become so common in English that they frequently appear even in the headlines of English-language newspapers the whole world over. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By PHILIP OCHIENG
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Certain Latin words and phrases have become so common in English that they frequently appear even in the headlines of English-language newspapers the whole world over, including in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. I can report, however, the publishers and senior editors do not encourage them.

I know it because I was once, for a number of years, the chief sub-editor of the Daily Nation, rising to become its managing editor for a short time. For those who do not know how the newsroom of a daily newspaper is structured, the chief sub-editor is the newsroom journalist who answers to the managing editor concerning the content, the form and the socio-ethico-aesthetic propriety of all its pages.

MISUSE ENGLISH

One of the problems is that a colonial European tongue — English in the case of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda — is the tool by which the educated ruling elite can understand one another (to a certain degree) countrywide, including concerning the aesthetic, cultural, ethical and political values imposed on the elite of a former colony of a Western European country.

Why? For the simple reason that sub-editors whose mother tongue is not English are quite likely to misuse English. The point, however, is that, if you must use a word, please ensure that it at least obeys every grammar rule. Take the following example: “Research data is prone to integrity risk”. It is frequently that I find the expression “data is” in Kenya’s media.

SINGULAR VERB

I culled the above example from a headline on page 15 of Nairobi’s Daily Nation of Monday, August 20. Yet, quite clearly, the Latin noun data cannot be followed by the English verb is. Why not? For the very simple reason that data is a plural noun — datum being its singular form — whereas the verb is can be used only with third person singular nouns or pronouns in one present tense form.

Let us reiterate this by generalising the rule. It is that the noun data cannot be followed by a singular verb. Why not? For the simple reason, as we have just seen, that data is the plural word whose singular form is datum. The word data must, therefore, take a verb appropriate to a plural substantive. In a word, the verb is can follow only singular substantives (nouns) or pronouns.

SUBSTANTIVES

This point is worth reiterating. All of East Africa’s high school students and all regular readers of this column should already know that data is a plural word (of Latin origin) and that datum is its singular form. Yet the expression “The data shows….” Is common among East Africa’s civil servants.

All of them should already know that substantives (nouns) of Latin origin which culminate in an um are pluralised by replacing the um with an A. It is thus that medium becomes media. The Nation is one medium, whereas The Nation and the Voice of Kenya are two media. Other examples include datum (data), dictum (dicta), and quantum (quanta).

Philip Ochieng is a retired journalist. [email protected]