Language is not just a system which is marked by utterances as events; but rather each human being has his own different language, and each tries to project a new language on the world. It is the trying to interpret, the desire to attempt, that is universal, not the grammar. A recent article in The New York Times is an example not only of a minefield of errors, obfuscating language, and clichés, but also of the woes when one actually doesn’t have anything to say yet is faced with the dictum to write or speak; the concerned article is the columnist Roger Cohen’s “Democracy Still Matters” (Sep 20, 2010; available here or here).

The lingering wars waged partly in democracy’s name in Iraq and Afghanistan hurt its reputation, however moving images of inky-fingered voters gripped by the revolutionary notion that they could decide who governs them.

How many of you had to read it more than once and scratch your head? You didn’t? Well, you’re bright, but not all are! You could have easily read it (assuming that a semicolon is missing) as “however, moving images gripped by …” and then wondered well where’s the rest of it. And then hunting the sentence again and again, you will realise that oh it means that “The lingering wars … hurt its reputation, however moving (are) the images of….” That definite article is necessary here; you could get a nice clue from the French translation of this article available here (“Aussi émouvantes que soient les images d’électeurs aux doigts maculés d’encre …”: note “les,” the definite article, instead of “des,” which would have allowed the omission of an article in English).

There are several other crimes committed here. The author uses “blood expended” instead of the more common “blood shed/spilled”: however, “expended” means one spends something for something, pays out something for something. Blood in revolutions and fights has often been shed even unwittingly, as mere victims of massacres; yes, blood can earn you a victory, and yet when one fights one has not thought I am spending my blood for such and such an item (here, democracy). “Expended” is practical; “spilled” is not: how many of the revolutionaries are practical?

Of course, the biggest thing that gets to me in this article is how glossed over is everything by the usage of “inappropriate” tenses, just so that the author can at the end, though without any substance that he shows except for a deceased’s opinion, conclude with self-congratulation that yes, democracy has to be sustained. “The lingering wars … hurt its reputation,” “China grew,” “Democracies seemed blocked.” What is this timeline? A timeline suggests that a war was fought during 1790-1796; is all this finished? Has the hurt to democracy ceased, or has China’s growth, or is the democracy in Israel not seeming so corrupt now? Why not “have hurt,” “has grown,” or “have seemed blocked”? Why not “There have been exceptions …” when it is only the recent past we’re talking about? In the end, the author’s questionable motives culminate with “however marginalized those dead white men may appear in the dawning Asian century“: it’s a beautiful way to say and not yet say. The dawning century is Asian, yes; and the dead white men who represented the voice of democracy are dead, yes. Two different things, and the writer connects them into one sentence, to give the impression to the reader they are connected? And yet, we read just before that it’s America inflicting wars on nations, while Russia and China have hardly any ideology. In that respect, corrupt governance seems to be a global thing and irrespective of ideologies or overt government structures; why does the writer choose to make such a connection?

Another sentence with strange usages: “Democracies seemed blocked, as in Belgium, or corrupted, as in Israel, or parodies, as in Italy, or paralyzed, as in the Netherlands.” “Parodies”? Is the writer talking of successive democratic systems in Italy? “Corrupted”? Why not “corrupt”? What is the difference here between “blocked” and “paralyzed”? Is the first one malfunctioning and the latter one not functioning at all?

And yes, the chief defect: “It’s important to stanch the anti-democratic tide.” And now that the reader awaits with bated breath a revelation as to why it’s necessary to hold on to democracy, the author instead of giving answers simply ends with quotations and aphorisms, and they are his reasons! Goodness me!

And well, what to say of the sentence “the historian who brought the same unstinting lucidity to his death last month from Lou Gehrig’s Disease“? Before you think Judt also as a pioneering biologist, and maybe a self-healing prophet as well, make changes thus: “the historian who showed the same unstinting lucidity faced with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which finally led to his death last month.” I guess this sentence says everything about the column/article.