English for the English speaker


As a trained professional in most things English (the language, not the nation), and with the Labor Day kick-off to the election season just around the corner, permit me a three-minute tutorial on “English for the English Speaker.”

We’ll begin by acknowledging the obvious: English, like Yorkshire pudding, isn’t always what it appears. More importantly, on the lips of the less-careful or purposely vague, English can, like, disappear, dude.

For example, was Republican presidential hopeful John McCain serious when he told a motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, S.D., recently that he’d rather hear the roar of 100,0000 American Harleys than the cheers of 200,000 Berliners?

Of course not. He’s playing the pandering politician. After all, everybody, even John McCain, knows that motorcycles don’t vote.

Sara Lee

Likewise, in explaining her firm’s $695 million, fourth quarter loss, Sara Lee Corp. CEO Brenda Barnes complained Aug. 8 that “everyone’s adjusting” to high commodity prices, especially food companies.

What she meant, however, was especially Sara Lee because the company made money in its just-finished fiscal year — $1.1 billion, in fact. Lax U.S. tax laws, though, permitted it to write off $874 million “associated with the goodwill of its North American food service and Spanish bakery business …”


Most corporations carry wildly inflated values of “goodwill” in certain assets on their books. They often then use those subjective values against profits to cut taxes — $377 million by Sara Lee in 2008.

(And, yes, a $377 million taxpayer subsidy went a long way to cover Sara’s higher commodity costs. That’s accounting, though; a language all its own.)

Tyson Foods. There are muddier examples of American English. To wit, Tyson Foods’ Richard Bond. If Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for corporate claptrap, Dick Bond would a finalist every year for statements like this gem from a July 28 Tyson press release explaining the company’s less-than-stellar third quarter results:

“Beef performed better than expected, although results were masked by a negative $75 million impact from application of mark-to-market accounting treatment related to our unrealized derivative losses for forward cattle purchases and forward boxed beef sale.”

A simple translation shows why he chose biz school baloney over egalitarian English: “Hey, we coulda made money in cattle, but we blew $75 mill trading futures.”

(No applause, e-mails or honorariums, please. It’s a gift.)


Sometimes English is perfectly contradictory. Take this headline from the July 18 edition of a statewide, Midwestern ag newspaper: “Leaders point to biotechnology as essential help for food crisis.”

Straightforward, concise, informative.

And completely at odds with another headline published just three weeks earlier in the English (sorry) newspaper The Guardian: “Syngenta Chairman Confesses: Genetically Engineered Crops Cannot Feed the World.”

I know what you’re thinking, “Oh my, I’ll just go to Disney World while they work this out.”

Don’t! We can work through this! Courage!

First, the leaders referred to in the initial headline are the elected (well, mostly) of the Group of 8 who met recently in Japan to discuss climate change.

(A side tutorial: “Climate change” is, more specifically, global warming. The semantic difference only matters if you’re looking for solutions. As such, politicians always say “climate change.”)

Two days of yakking, however, yielded no agreement. They did, though, agree to “promote … seed varieties developed through biotechnology.”


Why all the talk of seeds and not melting glaciers?

Again, simple. Melting glaciers do not respond to tax cuts or research grants. Big business and big science do — regardless if either actually succeeds.

Two words: Cold fusion.

Well, our three minutes are up. Next time on “English for the English Speaker,” we’ll take up dangling participles and cold fusion. You won’t want to miss either.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com



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