May 04, 2008

Syntax and semantics

May 2007 saw the European Union expand with several new member states in Eastern Europe joining, and this has caused a major influx of immigrants in the UK. Now, my aim here is not to bash new residents in Britain. On the contrary, I'm trying to put myself in their shoes when it comes to learning the English language because they really aren't helped very much when you consider the standard of English displayed by natives of this country. Among other things, I have seen mass-produced labels with phrases like “All warranty's will be voided” and my local computer store has a “Return's desk”. That is just plain wrong syntax with a possessive being used in place of a plural form. Most non-native speakers (or should that be “speaker's”?) should be able to see what's wrong with that.

What about semantics, though?

One thing that stuck in my memory is something that a Computer Sciences teacher of mine when I was in France said in class when trying to explain the difference between syntax and semantics. He used a very simple example, starting with the sentence: “The cat is eating meat”, and asking if anyone could point out anything wrong with it. “Of course there's nothing wrong with it,” he said. “There's a subject, a verb and an object.” He then went on to change the sentence slightly and asked us if this was just as good: “The cat is eating a fork-lift truck.” When everyone started giggling he pretended to look hurt and confused and asked why we found this second example so odd. “What's wrong? There's a subject, a verb and an object here, too.”

“It's ridiculous, it doesn't make sense!” was the general consensus in the classroom.

Semantics is “making sense”. Playing on semantics is part of the art of comedy, which is why this huge poster that's about 6 feet tall is something that anyone with a sense of humour will find amusing. So, let's take a closer look at the top of it:
You know, the police might have something to say about this unless a few things I can think of became legal in the UK while I was asleep on Friday night.

Moving on:
The same remarks as above apply, and while I'm sure that people in poorer nations might relish the idea of offering themselves for sale in a richer country, it doesn't make it any the more legal.

This now becomes a little worrying and mind-boggling:
Why would I want to go out and buy a juvenile goat from a clothes store?

Blatant abuse of the English language like this is something that really can't be helping foreigners learn the language and integrate into British society.