Learning English at the Australian Open

Yes, I know. As a lifelong tennis player, I should have been trying to learn Nadal’s forehand, Medvedev’s serve or either man’s backhand.

Congratulations to Nadal. They are a great player.

However, as a lifelong realist, I know that any hope of my emulating those men’s strokes is forlorn. They and I inhabit different tennis planets, and I can no more learn to hit the tennis ball from them than they from me.

Yet I’m not only a lifelong hacker, but also a lifelong student of the English language. That’s why, when watching a sporting event on TV, or reading about it in the papers, I pay attention not only to how the players play, but also to how the commentators speak or write.

To keep it fair, I never mock the numerous errors peppering the speech of former tennis players for whom English isn’t their mother tongue. It’s only native speakers who find themselves in my crosshairs.

One such bemoaned a sitter blown by a seeded player. “Missing easy shots isn’t his forte [pronounced for-tay],” he said. The reporter hit a double fault there, an impressive feat, considering that both came from a single attempt, in this case one word.

‘Forte’ has two pronunciations in English. In music, whose glossary is dominated by Italian, the word is indeed pronounced for-tay. But in the non-musical sense of a ‘strong point’, the word floated into English from France, which is why it’s pronounced fort (as in Sumter or Benning, for the benefit of my American readers).

Yet, however pronounced, the word didn’t belong in that context. Missing easy shots is no one’s forte. It can be somebody’s (well, my) weakness or, as one can deduce from the context in question, habit. I know that ‘habit’ doesn’t sound as sophisticated as ‘forte’, but if that’s what the chap meant, then he should have bitten the bullet, or else his tongue, and bloody well said it.

This brought back to mind my pet idea of issuing licences for using words. The whole lexicon of the English language should be broken into groups according to the frequency of usage. For example, the word ‘bed’ will appear in the 10,000 most frequently used words, the first licensed bracket.

Since words like ‘eirenic’, ‘exegesis’ or for that matter ‘forte’ won’t be covered by that starter licence, only an advanced course would entitle a speaker to use them. I’m not sure how this system could be set up or enforced, but it’s the thought that counts.

At the end of the match, the biggest sponsor of the tournament said a few customary words. He congratulated the players and remarked that his company has been sponsoring the event for 21 years. And since Nadal has now won 21 majors, “there’s a lot of synergy there”.

There isn’t. If I were a language policeman, the chap would have had his collar felt.

‘Synergy’ is interaction producing a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Since neither Nadal nor the chap has become better at his job as a result of that corporate sponsorship, the word is simply wrong.

He meant ‘symbolism’, but, as you’ll notice, neither word is among the most frequently used ones. Since in my scheme the speaker wouldn’t have qualified for an advanced licence, he should have said something like ‘a good sign’ or ‘a happy coincidence’, hoping that ‘coincidence’ would just about squeeze into the top 10,000.

Let’s not be too harsh on the good Aussie gentleman – using English isn’t his profession. It is, however, how a sports journalist earns his crust at one of our top newspapers.

Professional integrity demands that people have full command of their tools of trade. The hack under scrutiny here has treated this requirement with cold disdain. Worse than that, he must really hate his principal tool, English.

If that weren’t the case, his ear, hand, mind – his whole system – would go on strike if he attempted to write the sentence he did write: “A protester for refugee rights has dramatically thrown themselves three metres onto the Australian Open court during the men’s trial.”

One has to infer that the protester suffers not only from asocial tendencies, but also from dual personality disorder. As one of my favourite comedians once quipped, “My Dad is a schizophrenic, but he’s good people.”

‘A protester’ is a singular noun; ‘themselves’ is a plural personal pronoun. The two don’t belong together this side of a loony bin.

I realise that singular personal pronouns, especially the masculine ones, have been outlawed by the woke controller. But submitting to the diktats of such riffraff is even worse than speaking without a licence – or with too much licence, as the case may be.

Anybody who loves English, or at least doesn’t hate it, would be unable to write such a sentence on pain of death. It would have jarred his ear worse than any tinnitus.

Nor was it a case of an unfortunate lapsus manus. For in the very next paragraph, the same offender committed a few more transgressions: “Gobsmacked tennis fans could be seen staring in shock as [a] person earlier leaped over the front row railing, waving the sign overhead. They only managed to make a short dash towards the corner of the court before being tackled by authorities.” [My emphases]

Enough said about the awful, ideologised grammar of that ‘they’ business. But the chap has a Van Gogh ear not only for grammar, but also for style.

The infra dig colloquialism ‘gobsmacked’ does exist, although the word doesn’t strike me as especially mellifluous or charming. Yet I wouldn’t take exception to it if uttered over a pint in a pub.

But in the context of a newspaper article it’s a glaring stylistic solecism that ought to have made the hack’s tinnitus even more acute. But it didn’t. His ear for English didn’t hurt because he doesn’t have one.

I don’t know if this says more about him or the paper that employs him. Doesn’t it have editors and subs? No, probably not.

The underlying assumption has to be that there’s no such thing as right or wrong – and not just in language. 

5 thoughts on “Learning English at the Australian Open”

  1. Years ago I gave up reading the local newspaper – I habit I started when I was 11. It got to the point that I was spending more time documenting errors than enjoying articles (I share your aversion with nowhere near your erudition). I long ago gave up my files of offending phrases, but I do remember one particularly egregious example from the sports page of “USA Today”: the headline proclaimed to have discovered the first “amphibious” pitcher. Quite a stretch from “ambidextrous”.

    Editors are still employed, but no longer editing. How could no one involved with the printing of the paper know the correct word?

  2. Possibly, Mr Boot, just possibly, the barbarian commentator may have unwittingly pronounced ‘for-tay’ correctly, if the word floated into English from France before the 17th century. French words were usually anglicized before that date.

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