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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.

A Reuters post dated 6 Feb 2010 says:

Obama has faced opposition to the proposal from Republicans who want money paid back to the government by big banks returned to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.

If I had not read the headline, I would’ve thought the proposal was from the Republicans. That is just one of the horrific ways this one sentence was created; having no comma before “who” means that the Republicans are not unanimous, but rather the article is talking about only some motley group of them. Definite article and/or use of possessive would certainly have helped to clarify the sentence further. Breaking into sentences or not including some understood things would have helped that second convoluted clause. I anyway think that the proposal faces opposition, not Obama.

Hence, I would change to the following:

Obama’s proposal has faced opposition from the Republicans, who want money paid by big banks to be returned to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.
Addendum on 1 Jul: Probably, I would just say “The proposal has faced …” as it must have been already discussed before (as evident from “the proposal” in the original post). What’s curious here how media often twists things into egocentric wars, into personalities stamping themselves on the world; how people relate much more to a person facing opposition rather than a policy facing opposition. It’s unfortunate, because policies affect people in their real lives, and the debate instead of centering around them gets lost in who is pushing for what, who’s winning and who’s losing.

The Cricinfo story on the running England-South Africa Test battle had an old irritant today:

Nevertheless, it was the change of pace that did for Duminy in the end, as Swann entered the attack in the 109th over, and true to his reputation, made an immediate impact. On the first day, he had needed three deliveries to remove another South African left-hander, Prince – this time he struck with his fifth ball, a sharply spinning offbreak that Collingwood snaffled at slip in a near-replica dismissal.

Of course, there are several irregularities here; the comma in the very first line should be after “and” and not before; that’s highly ridiculous though understandable since the writer must have been in a hurry on a news website. Again I would have opted for a semicolon after Prince, but that in itself might turn out to be just my peculiarity. However, what starts getting me is a needless use of the word “snaffle”; I saw the dismissals, and at the most the bowler snaffled the batsman overall, as Duminy was not looking particularly uncomfortable. To suggest that the catch itself was a snaffled one suggests the reflexes to be quicker than they were required in this case; the catch was a good one, but it was not something out of the ordinary, and if not bountiful, Collingwood did have ample time to take it, considering him to be an international-level cricketer. What irritated me highly though was that “near-replica dismissal.”

Along with its counterpart “exact replica,” I am almost dead tired and flogged and rinsed of replicas completely. The two dismissals, that of Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy, were exactly similar (note “exactly” is fine here); they were carbon copies! How to suggest that as near replicas beats me first of all, besides the further thought that what exactly is a “near replica”? The Oxford University Press says replica is “a very good or exact copy of sth”; so then is a near replica something which seems to have some resemblances to something when you can stretch your imagination a bit? To say nothing that here anyway they were perfect copies, not even good copies, so why this generous usage of words, and why not just “replica”, or to make your point sharper, “replica of a/the dismissal” (“replica” as noun, which always is preferable to me—avoids all confusion).

Of course, terms like “exact replica” are further off the mark, especially if you now move to Webster’s from Oxford, which says “replica” to be “a copy exact in all details”! So is an “exact replica” an “exact exact copy”? What exactly?