Glad to be alive
August 30, 2015
You may have noticed that your bank loan statements and reports now talk about the balance on your “principle.” That is bad English: they mean balance on your principal. It is dismaying because bank staff at the level where statements are composed are supposed to be all college graduates, indeed people with advanced degrees. Similarly, the head of your child’s school is the Principal, not the “Principle.” Their error arises because we tend to let our speech control our writing, and an American tends to pronounce “principle” and “Principal” exactly the same. In other words, our failure to enunciate in our speech causes spelling errors.
Both principle and principal derive from the Latin word “princeps,” which means “head” or “main” (in the sense of a “head,” or a “main” idea). So the “principal” in banking is the “main money” you borrowed, as opposed to the interest that you did not borrow (but which accrues anyway!); on the other hand, “principle” means “core idea,” or “main idea” For instance, the principle behind democracy is individual freedom. A principle is always an IDEA, not a person or material object. Thus, there is no such thing as your “principle balance,” or the “principle” of your high school.
The same enunciation problem makes us say we “peddle” our bicycle. We do not “peddle” a bike; we pedal it. “Peddle” and “pedal” come from the same Latin root, in this case pes, which means “foot.” (The genitive case is pedis, which means “of the foot.”) Again, failure to enunciate clearly in speech makes us pronounce both verbs as “peddle.” To “peddle” a thing really means to try quite persistently to sell it to people! That usage probably started because door-to-door sales people went about their business on foot.
To enunciate is to lay proper emphasis in speech to those parts of a word that distinguish it from other similar words. It requires efficient (sometimes forceful) use of the muscles of the mouth. The opposite of enunciation is mumbling or slurring. Inadequate enunciation is what makes many native speakers of English mis-pronounce certain words in such a manner as to induce improper spelling. For instance, there is no country called “Senegaul” or “Nepaul” (it is “Nepal” and “Senegal,” with the mouth opened wide at the “–al” ending. Similarly, just as your friend is your pal (and not your “paul”), the name of the most famous Spanish tennis player today is “Rafael Nadal” (not “Nadaul”); and the easternmost region of India (the place with the fierce, man-eating tigers) is called “Ben-gal” and not “Ben-gaul.” Similarly, slack enunciation makes us say “Ah” (for “I”), “Mah” (for “My”), “Or” (for “Our”), and “war” (for “were”).
A related error concerns the use of “then” when one means “than.” A surprising number of people now write sentences like “A is better then B,” when they mean “A is better than B.” Again, if you do not enunciate well you will come to mix up “then” and “than.”
Fortunately, these slack versions are still mostly limited to spoken English; they have not yet carried over into written English. But one must expect them to creep into written communication as our educational levels get more and more degraded. I have just finished reading a self-published novel written by a physician (with a dozen or more years of education in English!), which was written in such a terrible style of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, that I began to think that self-published books should not be sold by mainline bookstores. (Unfortunately, I bought that book from Amazon.com.) Books published by mainstream publishers first go through literary agents who ensure the manuscript is up to snuff, that it was adequately proof-read, and that it receives proper review and editing before it goes to the publisher. A self-published book, on the other hand, may not have been scrutinized by anyone beyond the writer himself/herself. That’s how freewheeling errors spread.
Nevertheless, I must declare that I thoroughly enjoyed reading that book, with its poor vocabulary and mangled grammar and syntax in virtually every sentence. The reason I found it entertaining and informative is that the story line was good: about the ethnic background of the author, who lived his professional adult life in the USA, though he was born elsewhere. I must say the book would have been immensely enhanced if care had been taken with the manuscript through the ministrations of reviewers and editors.
US speakers of English have a tendency not to sound the letter “t” in some situations, such as when it is preceded or followed by an “r.” We tend to say “burrer” for “butter,” and “warrer” for “water.” The first time I heard an evangelist on TV say his God was “immorral,” I was flabbergasted until I realized he meant “immortal.” The British have no such tendency: they sound the letter ‘t’ as a hard consonant.