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Why you should use words that capture your message concisely

By Alexander Chagema | Published Mon, February 12th 2018 at 10:39, Updated February 12th 2018 at 10:43 GMT +3

Of late, the Kenyan political scene has been quite lively. The Opposition, having lit a fire under the seat of power, is feeling the heat of an easily ‘excitable’ Government intent on proving a point that many are not interested in.

Lawyer Miguna Miguna, the self-acclaimed General of the proscribed, yet unregistered National Resistance Movement discovered soon enough that one only gets as much freedom as the Government determines, not what is written in some document called the Constitution.
A week ago,  Government operatives attacked Miguna’s home in the upmarket Runda suburb in the wee hours of the morning, wreaked havoc to the house and gave him the fright of his life.

In the news, it was reported ‘Government literally lays siege on Miguna Miguna’s home’. On social media, I read complaints to the effect, ‘the enormity of the damage to Miguna’s house was shocking”. “They have wrecked havoc to the general’s house”. Some of those supporting the State’s action wrote, “Government refutes claims it was responsible” Someone else wrote “this begs the question: has the Constitution been suspended?”


At a glance, all the expressions listed in the quotes above look passable. They appear to conform to the rules of grammar, but a little scrutiny reveals the errors. What the police, whom Miguna refers to as thugs did to his home was to ‘lay siege to’ (to surround, say, a house or building, with the intention of forcibly taking out, and into custody, those hiding inside, mostly following a crime).

If those inside the building manage to hold out the siege for a period of time, we say “They withstood a siege of two days”, et cetera. There have been instances where writers try to rearrange or substitute the wordings of an idiomatic expression for dramatic effect, but end up losing it.

For instance, to write ‘The silence was almost pin drop’ as a variation of ‘pin drop silence’ (total silence in which one can hear a pin, as light as it is, drop), is to mutilate an idiom and turn it into something else. Idiomatic expressions have largely remained unchanged over a long period of time. Many of the English language users, perhaps just out of being sloppy with words, easily confuse ‘wreak’ and ‘wreck’. To ‘wreak’ means to ‘cause’ or ‘inflict’, while ‘wreck’ means to destroy or severely damage. Unless one intends to ‘damage’ havoc, wreck and havoc should not be used together.

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Many of us use the term ‘literally’ quite liberally and often wrongly. Literally refers to something done in a ‘literal’ sense. Literal means ‘word for word’ or representing exact words of the original text’. However, over time, the word ‘literally’ has taken on a new dimension; that of emphasis. So, if one says: “We were literally killing ourselves with laughter after the NRM general who dared the Government was run through several police stations and bundled out of the country on the first available plane, and he couldn’t do anything about it”, it should not alarm us. Language evolves, it is something we must get to terms with.


When the word ‘enormity’ is used to mean something enormous (big or huge), that is a wrong application. Enormity simply means ‘extreme evil’. The word ‘refute’, which means to ‘disprove with evidence, should not be confused with, or used to mean ‘rebut’. Rebuttals are simply ‘arguments against’.

How often have you used the expression, ‘which begs the question’, to pose a question? It might interest you to know that you have been wrong all along. ‘Begs the question’ is an idiomatic expression that assumes what it should be proving. In other words, making a conclusion that lacks support. The following example will make the meaning clear; “When I asked the doctor why a minor operation should cost so much, his reply was- because this is the biggest hospital in Africa- but that just begs the question”. In this case, just because the hospital is the biggest in Africa does not make it the best, but does the doctor acknowledge that?

An ‘excitable’ government refers to one, in the strict sense of the word, that responds too readily to something new or challenging. It does not necessarily mean to be ‘excited’. The latter means eagerness or enthusiasm, often in a positive way.

The turn of events following the harassment of Opposition leaders has revealed how ‘wet behind the ears’ those spearheading the whole scheme are. They have been moving from one costly blunder to another. This idiomatic expression, which can alternately be written as ‘green behind the ears’, is used to denote inexperience, particularly in judgement.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The Standard. [email protected]

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