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'Critical' and other words that challenge speakers of English

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While emphasising an essential point, some people are likely to use the expression ‘critically important’. Indeed, this is something one hears quite often during radio and television interviews and interactive shows. The question then is, is it proper to use such an expression?

Quite a number of meanings can be derived from the adjective ‘critical’ when it is used in combination with either a noun or a verb, and when the suffix ‘ly’ is added to it. The dictionary definition of ‘critical’ is 'expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements'. In regard to literature, it is an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature. The addition of the suffix ‘ly’, to form the adjective ‘critically’ does not fundamentally alter the meaning but, more often than not, describes what is in the past. US President Donald Trump’s recent remarks on Africa evoked anger. In a sentence, one can write, ‘Donald Trump spoke critically of African leaders’ ineptitude’. ‘Donald Trump was critical of African leaders’ ineptitude’.

While referring to a person’s state of health, ‘critically’ in combination with the noun ‘ill’ are used to describe a state that leaves little hope for the patient’s recovery. It can be used, depending on the nature of the illness, say, in cancer cases, interchangeably with ‘terminally ill’. However, while ‘terminally’ describes a finality, ‘critically’ does not necessarily do so. A critically ill patient can recover, but not a terminally ill one.

Critical to

There are other expressions such as ‘critical to’, ‘critical for’, ‘critical about’ that once in a while are used out of context. The expression ‘critical to’ (necessary for) often precedes a noun. For example, ‘Food is critical to good health’. ‘Top grade oil is critical to a car’s top engine performance’. On the other hand, ‘critical for’ is used in linking parts of a sentence. ‘Education is critical for getting a well-paying job’.

Thus, to say ‘critically important’ is bad form. Either, the issue at hand is ‘important’ (very important) or is ‘critical to’ something. ‘Honest, unconditional dialogue between the government and the opposition is critical to holding our country together’. ‘Dialogue is important to holding the country together in the face of political posturing’.

‘Critical about’ and ‘critical of’ have the same meaning; that of disproving of something. ‘Mr Miguna Miguna is critical about the Jubilee government’s way of doing business’. ‘Attorney General Githu Muigai is critical of the National Super Alliance’s plan to swear in its own president’.

Yet another confusing expression because of the American influence on the English language is ‘outside of’. Ideally, ‘outside’ should be used by itself, for the addition of the word ‘of’ makes the combination a colloquialism, which is not good in formal writing. To those whom the computer is a facilitator of their work, they are sometimes asked to choose between American English (US) and British English (UK). For those, especially, who work for establishments such as the media or publishing firms where a particular form of the English language is stressed, words that end with ‘ise’ or ‘ize’ tend to confuse. Examples of such words are standardise/standardize, digitise/digitize, popularise/popularize, maximise/maximize.

Talk to me

In the English (UK) version, ‘ise’ is preferred over ‘ize’ which, many consider to be the American version. The Americans prefer using ‘ize’. Surprisingly though, ‘ize’ is actually the British form. ‘ise’ is said to be a derivative of the French language. Nevertheless, both spellings are acceptable in day-to-day use in other forums.

Television is basically about the larger audience, yet by choice of words, some anchors inadvertently reduce the discussion’s audience to two; the interviewer and the interviewee. Expressions such as 'talk to me’ are inappropriate in an interview that seeks to benefit the public.

‘Talk to me’ is a form of persuasion that seeks to get an uncommunicative person to speak about something that could be bothering him or her. For example, if you observe an otherwise boisterous child to be unusually quiet, you encourage him or her to share whatever is bothering him or her by saying, 'Talk to me, dear.'

‘Tell me’, on the other hand, expresses eagerness, at a personal level, to hear about something of interest. For instance, on learning that a friend has just come back from an interesting place, one could exclaim, 'Tell me about it!' The expression can also be used as a command to get information from a person who might be reluctant to give it. It, therefore, suffices for the person conducting the interview to simply say 'Tell us' (general audience).


Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]