Kiwinglish just ain't correct grammar

03:56, May 19 2014
SINGLE OR PLURAL? Differences between New Zealand English and other forms of the language range from obvious to subtle.

I've come to a dramatic conclusion this week. Actually, dramatic might be stretching the point, but I have come to a conclusion. Right before I wrote that, in fact.

It's this. As much as there's an American form of English, which we love to criticise, mock, belittle, there's a New Zealand form too. I'm surprised, in retrospect, that it's taken me more than 13 years to figure that out.

Perhaps it's just a little more subtle, or maybe I've become progressively more of a language pedant with the passage of time. A bit of both, probably.

American English is just like America, isn't it? Loud, brash, in your face. "We're not gonna put u's in our words, see. We're gonna write color and labor without 'em, and we're gonna write organization and civilization instead of organisation and civilisation, just 'cause we feel like it."

Of course, nobody ever actually said that; I'm just trying to capture an approach, an attitude.

Americanism is a term that's often used. In fact, in the journalism game, they're something we're required to steer clear of, especially when it comes to handling copy from that part of the world.


I'm glad that we haven't kow-towed like the Australians, who have a Labor Party.

Not cool, cobbers.

But I'm not aware of any newsroom directives to staff to be aware of insidious Kiwi-isms creeping into copy, to be removed lest they cause confusion for readers.

Not that they'd happen here; I'm obviously referring to my time working in South Africa, when we'd occasionally deal with copy written by New Zealand journalists, particularly during rugby season.

In 1994, during the Springboks' first post-apartheid tour here, we were too busy ensuring our own touring writer, from the South African Press Association, didn't overdo the references to New Zealand as "the land of the long white cloud" to spot Kiwi peculiarities in agency copy.

I guess New Zealand's size and isolation might be factors in its particular language quirks not standing out like those Americanisms, but then there's also that subtlety I mentioned. They're not overstated.

What finally brought me to the realisation that what I will call Kiwinglish exists was not reflecting on the unusual terms one hears here, like chilly bin and judder bar. I've known those for a long time.

In fact, it was a conversation in our newsroom, between two senior journalists who will remain nameless, though both are a fair chunk older than I am, I'd venture.

Before I go into that, though, a grammatical question for you: what's the singular form of criteria? Have you ever heard it?

You'll have read it if you saw one of the Herald stories over recent months in which I've corrected criteria to its singular form, but it may not have registered.

That's by way of background, because the conversation I heard involved this word. I was at the other end of the room when I heard one colleague observe that the word "criteria" had been changed to ... (answer at end) in a story he'd edited.

"Yes, that's the singular form," I offered.

A second later, the other colleague, having looked it up online, confirmed that.

"Yes, it's the singular form of criteria," he said, adding "but it's hardly in common usage, though".

I sat somewhat amazed for a few moments. It was hard to take in that neither of them appeared to have heard of a word I'd grown up with. It seemed utterly bizarre. But I was certain I hadn't misheard them.

It stayed with me all week, and before writing this, I tried a couple of quick exercises. Firstly, I surveyed my Twitter followers. Then I texted half a dozen friends and colleagues, asking, in both instances, if they knew the singular form. The answers were revealing.

At time of writing, I have five answers from colleagues. Two said criterium, one said "no idea". Two got it right, one through knowledge of the sport of cycling.

I have four answers from Twitter, all correct; one from England, two from fellow South Africans now living in Australia and New Zealand respectively.

But the answer I got from a young New Zealander went a long way to confirming my theory.

"Is it criterion? I've never heard it in use that I can think of," he wrote.

It is, and he may well be right. It's a form of the word Kiwis generally don't seem to know from regular use.

As the South African respondent living in Wellington said: "I always try to make an effort to use criterion, but the recent acceptance of criteria as singular makes it hard not to follow suit."

Given my conclusion, I think I'm going to embark on putting together a dictionary of Kiwinglish.

It'll also include the fact that Kiwis erroneously write common sense as a single word and use there's - which we all know is a contraction of "there is" - regardless of whether or not the object of the sentence is singular or plural.

Like this: "There's a lot of peaches on that tree". Strictly speaking, it should be "there are", but hey, Kiwinglish has its own rules.

Any other potential entries will be welcomed with open arms, and the contributors sent invitations to the coming launch.

In fact, that's the only criteria for invitation.

(Yes, that was deliberate. I got it from my new Kiwinglish dictionary).

The Timaru Herald