Beware of the order of words and placement of comas for clarity

Last week, I culled a number of things from mainstream and social media that inform our discussion today. The first was a topical question prominently displayed on screen by a local television station that read: Are young women losing their lives at the expense of living a flashy lifestyle?

That had something to do with several reported murders involving young women recklessly chasing life on the fast lane. Second, there was a denigrating comment on social media that, while dismissing the prospects of a prominent leader becoming the president of Kenya in 2022, ended with "...... his political graph is dieing". Third, there was a headline in one of the local dailies that read: 'Move or resign, TSC tells shifted leaders'.

For us to get a better perspective on the aforementioned, we will have to revisit the issues of homographs, homophones and gerunds. To begin with, the phrase 'at the expense of' in the sentence above is misleading, particularly considering that its dictionary definition is; 'so as to cause harm to, or neglect of'. That being so, the question above bears the wrong order of words, putting what should have been at the beginning of the sentence at the end.

Ideally, the question should have read: 'Are young women living a flashy lifestyle at the expense of their lives? ". It is the flashy lifestyle that can cause harm to their lives, not their lives causing harm to a flashy lifestyle. Thus, while the wording remains the same, where specific words appear in relation to the operative words ‘at the expense of’, will determine the final meaning.

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Mere placement

Let us compare this to the use of the coma whose absence or presence in a sentence determines what meaning a reader derives. For instance, in the sentence, " The Judge says the accused is a mental case", the absence of a coma expressly puts the burden of insanity on the accused, but that burden changes by the mere placement of comas after the words Judge and accused :'The Judge, says the accused, is a mental case' .

As shown above, 'dieing' was used in the context of death, or ceasing to exist. As such, using the word as a participle of the verb 'die' is ungrammatical. Ideally, the present particle of die is 'dying'.  As a word, however, 'dieing' exists, but is restricted to use by machinists and is rarely used in day to day discussions.

The word 'die' falls under the grouping of homographs; words with same spelling but different meanings, for example bow( bending before another person to show respect) and bow (a weapon from which arrows are fired). It also falls under the grouping of homophones; words that sound similar but bear different spellings. For example 'die' and 'dye'. Dye is a chemical applied to change the colour of fabrics, hair or leather. The actual process of doing that is called 'dyeing'.

Present participle

While die in normal usage means to stop existing, it also means to cut, or stamp using a die (a special industrial machine used to cut or shape metal). The present participle die (machine) is dieing (the act of cutting using the die machine) while the present participle of 'dye' is 'dyeing'. Thus, we understand why confusing the two is easy in that moment of inattention. Note, however, that the ‘dieing’ and ‘dyeing’ have nothing to do with death, only ‘dying’ does.

A point worth noting is that the addition of 'ing' to verbs shows the progressive or continuous aspect. What this means is that the ‘ing’ ending depicts some action in progress, for example; eat-ing, walk-ing, swimm-ing, jump-ing etcetera. Last week, we discussed how the addition of 'ing' to certain verbs designates them as gerunds. These are verbs that function like nouns e.g. "Talking to FLOTUS was such an experience to the little kids she visited".

The headline, 'Move or resign, TSC tells shifted teachers' was more about the writer choosing to go with the bad form,  picking a synonym that did not quite capture what was intended. The offending word here is 'shifted'. Teachers get transferred, or moved to different work stations. Though to shift is to move or cause to move from one place to another, to a larger extent, it is best used with inanimate objects; “We shifted the books to the new library”

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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