The gaffe that keeps on gifting

While The Register is enjoyably irreverent in its dogged pursuit of stories (and delivers a generally high standard of journalism in that sense), its contributors seem on occasion to be incapable of writing English. They pepper their prose with completely inappropriate words, bizarre hyphenations and other punctuation peculiarities, acting at times like they’ve learnt English from textbooks but never actually read a complete sentence. Strictly speaking, you can’t call this writing incorrect—not least because someone will invariably point at some rule somewhere to show that technically they can do what the want and just have done, and consistent tone be damned—but it’s certainly odd, and an accumulation of such baroque words and phrases can overwhelm the sense of an article.

Recently, their regular contributor Chris Williams was describing the beneficial relationship between the BBC iPlayer and the corporation’s site traffic; he chose the esoteric little verb “gift” to do so. Unfortunately, the commenter who upbraided Chris on this (“Nick”) claimed that “gifting” wasn’t a verb, rather than suggesting that Chris was being pretentious when he used it. Chris, with the deadpanned glee of someone who’s already been to his bookshelf once that day, in order to look at that very word, thumbed to the Post-it note sticking out of the dictionary and replied saying that actually it was a verb, and Henry James used it in the next-to-last century, so it must be fine to squirt it into a technical news website in 2007.

It’s difficult to argue with this sort of book-pointer-atter, but I can try. For a start: while ticking someone off about a language error, unless you’re employing a specific blend of irony, you should at least try to get your own syntax right. There was only ever one Fowler, making the book he wrote Fowler’s Modern English, with the apostrophe indicating a singular possessive. Even the unintentionally hilarious Wikipedia (target of much of The Register‘s opprobrium) gets this right. But then I suppose reading Fowler’s (or Fowler, if you’re an ardent Wikipedophile) won’t help you with the simplest of punctuation; and anyway, as he’s made clear, Chris might be reading it, but he’s also ignoring it.

More subtle is the lack of vocative comma between “is” and “Nick” in Chris’ comment. As written, “I’m afraid it is Nick” implies some sort of equivalence between “it” (i.e. the word “gift”) and Nick, not between “gift” and its status as a verb; Nick, I’m fairly certain, is a contributor and not actually the word “gift.” Besides, the word “gift” does not contribute comments to The Register, as it’s busy reading The Economist. Chris actually wanted to write “I’m afraid it is[comma] Nick.”

Comma-less vocatives are common these days, but the concomitant lack of clarity would probably prompt a good prose stylist to pop one in. Unlike Latin, English doesn’t have a vocative case, and only starts to need one when people play fast and loose with commas. You can muddle along without one, of course, but I don’t think in that case you should then attempt a usage-off with one of the most assiduous prose stylists in the English language.

Let’s move on from mistakes of form and clarity to discuss the original stylistic howler: the use of “gift” instead of “give.” I’ve recently discussed this peculiar little verb elsewhere, so some of you might be experiencing déjà vu at this point. “Gifting” is more often than not found as a legal term these days, to establish a difference between the simple act of giving and the legal act of endowing or relinquishing all ownership: I might give you my jacket while I take off my jumper and yet expect it back; if I gifted you my jacket then it would no longer be mine to demand. How this relates to an application driving traffic to the BBC website is beyond me; in contrast, the more appropriate verb “to give” would have covered the situation adequately; moreover, it would have done so in keeping with the idiom of the rest of the article, and not tripped up Nick or me (or any of the other readers who frowned at it and simply moved on).

Ultimately, anyone is welcome to use any word in any context. Language is a predominantly demotic exercise, and the ship of English is steered in part by trivial and everyday usage. But if you use words out of context—not from a detailed knowledge of said context and the possible consequences of surprising the reader, but rather as a vain attempt to brighten up your writing at the expense of coherence of style—then people are similarly welcome to complain about it. Pointing at a dictionary is only a limited defence; trumpeting one book, while discarding others, is as harmful to communication and understanding as any other sort of fundamentalism.

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This entry was posted in commenting, editing, idiom, journalism, language, media, nu-media, opinion, rants, subediting, syntax. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The gaffe that keeps on gifting

  1. Quinn says:

    I do like your discussions of the English language; it’s just a shame I feel so self-conscious about my own spelling and grammar after reading a post!

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