Use prepositions and gerunds carefully to avoid misleading readers

Today’s column begins with a passage culled from an online publication:  “The famous Kakamega girls with mirroring features, Sharon and Melon, are identical twins after all, according to DNA results released at the weekend.

But if you read this breaking news on the Nation, you might have needed an expert translator. Yes, the Saturday story’s title was simple: Sharon and Melon are identical twins, DNA tests reveal.”

Upon reading this passage, what stands out clearly is the poor syntax. While grammar is defined as the rules governing the use of any language, syntax is defined as the arrangement of phrases and words to create well-formed and coherent sentences.

Many Kenyans know the story of the twins who, for purposes of identification, are referred to as the ‘Kakamega twins’ and a third girl through media accounts. From the outset, keen observers noted that the twins are spitting images of each other.

It is a striking resemblance that even without the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) test, it would have been difficult to convince many who took interest in the story as it developed that the girls are not of the same parentage.

The DNA merely went to the extent of scientifically affirming the truth.

For More of This and Other Stories, Grab Your Copy of the Standard Newspaper.

Thus, to describe the striking resemblance, the use of the verb ‘mirror’ (correspond to), not the gerund or present participle ‘mirroring’ suffices.

Gerunds are verbs to which letters ‘ing’ have been added, thus enabling them to function like nouns.

Separate entity

The phrase ‘with mirroring features’ is misleading. The preposition ‘with’ (accompanied by), in the context in which it is used in the text above suggests that ‘mirroring features’ is a separate entity from the two girls.

Comparatively, the sentence;  “According to DNA results released at the weekend; Sharon and Melon, the famous twins whose features mirror each other, are  biological twins after all” is not only in the active voice, it is coherent.

Having said their looks mirror each other, to use the word ‘identical’ in the same sentence is tautological. What one sees in the mirror is identical to the object being reflected. Further, the phrase ‘mirroring features’ seems to suggest it is the ‘features’ that have the mirror qualities.

The sentence: “But if you read this breaking news on the Nation” is ungrammatical. In writing, it is safer to assume your readers know nothing about what you are talking about. You must, therefore, never leave room for doubt or a second interpretation. As a writer, your audience is not live.

As such, you don’t have the leisure of explaining what you meant, unlike in oratory where you can retract a spoken word effortlessly. That said, one wonders; what is the Nation in this case? Was the breaking news about the Nation (country)? The writer should have taken time to specify that the story he or she was referring to was lifted from a national newspaper known as the Daily Nation.

His faculties

The writer creates more vagueness by writing: “the Saturday’s story”. What is the ‘Saturday’? Whoever did it neglected to write ‘Saturday Nation’ to avoid ambiguity. Such inattention brings to mind ‘helping verbs’ which, on their own, are meaningless. They are good for grammatical constructions and only make sense when used together with ‘main verbs’

For instance, if a total stranger walked up to you and simply stated, “He did”, what would you make of that? Chances are, you will think he is someone who has lost his faculties and walk away. However, if the same stranger said, “He has brought all the shoes you requested “, you are likely to get a conversation going, if only to tell him he has a case of mistaken identity.

Do we read news on or in newspapers? These two prepositions can be tricky in application. In denoting the location of something inside space, we use ‘in’. 

If whatever reference is being made to is above a surface, we use the preposition ‘on’. For example: ‘There are bees in the hive’ and ‘There are bees on the hive’. News, in as much as it is printed on a newspaper’s pages, occupies space inside the newspaper.

Finally, why would anyone need an ‘expert translator’? By the mere fact of being able to interpret (translate orally or into sign language what another person says in a different language), one is an expert of sorts. As such, the word ‘expert’ is superfluous.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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