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Friday, January 30, 2004
Some interesting uses of the English language

Before I left Airstrip One, several unusual (or careless) uses of English struck me. On the radio, I heard an item of news which led me to believe that a boy had been ‘stabbed in the corridor’. I looked up ‘corridor’ in a medical dictionary but I could find no physical part of the body called ‘the corridor’ in which one could be stabbed. Then I wondered if the newsreader meant ‘in the vestibule’ but boys don’t have them, do they?

A day or two later, I walked past a workmen’s hut. A notice attached to it said ‘This cabin is alarmed’. I watched it for a minute or two but it appeared to exude such an air of equanimity that one could not, for the slightest moment, imagine the structure being at all apprehensive. What did the notice mean, I wonder.

The Australians are not, in general, known for their skills at using our common language. Many of them relate to road safety signs. ‘Drowsy drivers die’ proclaims one. What an interesting statement but it’s a few propositions short of a syllogism. How about ‘Some drowsy drivers die’ or even ‘Not all drowsy drivers die’? But if they really mean ‘All drowsy drivers die’, then what is the point? We all die eventually. As we all know, ‘All men are mortal’, ‘Socrates is a man’… [That’s enough sillygisms – Ed.]

A variation on this notice – ‘Drowsy drivers die: 500 metres’ – jumped out at me a few days ago. Needless to say, I was unable to observe anyone – drivers or anyone else - dying after 500 metres. A little further on, I came to a sign on a building: ‘Rear Parking’ it said but there was nowhere at all to sit down.

Finally, there’s fairly general and indiscriminate use of the greengrocer’s apostrophe. One delightful one, in Melbourne Central Station, points to ‘Ticket Machine’s’. A few wry comments written beside the apostrophe reveal that several Aussies feel uncomfortable with this cavalier use of punctuation. But the best collection was at Curtin Springs near Ayers (Ayer’s?) Rock. There was a loo for women headed ‘Shielas’ and the post box said ‘Male collected daily’. Ho hum: it must be dangerous to be a bloke in the Northern Territory. The place also had quite a lot of caged animals and there was a sign to ‘Emu’s’. I did wonder if there were any emulations on show but, given the rural nature of the place, I had to accept that it almost certainly referred to examples of a species of flightless bird.

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