Beware of common words that don't convey the intended meaning

Culled from a local daily yesterday, the passage; ‘Kenya is looking to add more than Sh300 billion to its bludgeoning loan portfolio from China’ best describes malapropism. This is the mistaken use of a word that sounds like the appropriate one, often with a light touch.

In this case, the writer should have used the word, burgeoning (growing or mushrooming), instead of bludgeoning. Bludgeon (noun), is a club. When used as a verb, it means to batter. Indeed, the first Chinese loan threatens to batter Kenyans. Its repayment will drive them into penury.

To state that; ‘Kenya is looking to add Sh300 billion’, is bad form.  In part, to look is to observe, gaze or examine. What Kenya is doing is ‘seek’ to add Sh300 billion to its debt by taking an additional loan from China. Having said this, let us discuss some of the common words that we inadvertently misapply.

A week ago, two passages from different forums proclaimed: ‘Rwanda yesterday celebrated 25 years after the genocide’ and ‘celebrations were held yesterday across Rwanda to mark 25 years since the Rwanda genocide”. The operative words in the sentences are ‘after’ and ‘since’.  Both function as preposition and conjunction.

Note that when using the perfect form of a verb to describe an action that continues into the future, the proper word is "since".  When using the past tense of a verb to indicate action happening at a point in the past, but does not, of necessity continue into the future, the correct word is "after."  Thus, the first quote suggests it was only after 25 years that Rwanda celebrated the genocide. The second shows the celebrations have occurred regularly over 25 years.

Defining clauses

The other tricky set of words is ‘which’ and ‘that’. To understand the difference, one must also understand what defining and non-defining clauses are.Variously, defining clauses are referred to as restrictive or essential clauses. In defining clauses, we use the word ‘that’. In a defining clause, the object is one of many. For example, “The car that has a broken headlamp needs fixing”. The possibility of there being two, three or more cars is evident by the specific reference to the one with a broken headlamp; meaning there could be others intact.

By using the word ‘which’ in place of ‘that’, the possibility there could be other cars is removed. It makes direct reference to the car. This makes the clause non-defining, non-essential or non-restrictive. What this means is that you can remove the dependent clause without affecting the meaning of the sentence in question.

Writer fails

‘Who’ and ‘whom’. Consider the questions: “To who do we credit the tranquil political climate despite acrimonious pronouncements by a few bitter politicians?” and “To whom do we credit the tranquil political climate despite acrimonious pronouncements by a few bitter politicians?”

The difference between the two words easily eludes some writers. However, ‘whom’ refers to the object of a verb while ‘who’ refers to the subject in a sentence. It would help to remember that ‘who’ can be replaced by the pronouns ‘she’ or ‘he’.  ‘Whom’, on the other hand, can only be replaced by the pronouns ‘him’ or ‘her’

For example, “Who would like to join me in the dance” can be rewritten as ‘She/he would like to join me in the dance’. ‘Him/her would like to join me in the dance’ sounds awkward. ‘To whom it concerns’ can be rewritten as ‘It concerns him/her’, not ‘It concerns he/she’.

Other tricky, yet common words are ‘assure’, ‘ensure’ and ‘insure’. Too often, especially in speech, you are likely to hear someone say ‘insure you deliver the message without fail”. This also happens in writing when a writer fails to pay much attention. Briefly, to assure is to put a second or third person at ease by removing any lingering doubts regarding an issue between you.

The act of making certain, removing any doubt for self (the first person) is to ensure. You take the initiative to make certain (ensure) that something will, or will not happen. Someone else could remind you to ‘ensure’ something is done

On the other hand, ‘insure’ is to take indemnity or protection by paying monthly premiums to a company that assures you in the event of what you have taken indemnity against happening, it will take responsibility and compensate you; either with money, or, in the case of a motor accident, another car.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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Common wordsIntended meaningMistakes in English