Stupid English Idioms

taiwan culture 2

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau spent a ton of dough for this full page ad in a recent issue of the prestigious Smithsonian magazine. Apparently they did not have any left over for a speaker of American-style English  to read it over. Grammatically there is nothing wrong with this slogan. But as soon as I flipped to that page, I said out loud, “Oh, no.” To American readers like me this slogan has exactly the opposite meaning of what was intended. The problem with it stuck out to me like a sore thumb, but I’ll be whipped if I could cite any official language rule that would explain it to the coiner of this slogan. “It’s just how we say things,” I would have to say.

Maybe the problem isn’t obvious to everybody. This ad must have been approved by a long chain of people before it was published, and they didn’t get it. So here it is:

“It’s time for culture in Taiwan” is the same as saying “It’s time that Taiwan get some culture now,” with the implication that Taiwan does not yet have any fine culture, and it would be pointless for people to travel there if they wanted to experience some. I have never been to Taiwan, but I am pretty sure there is plenty of culture there. The people of Taiwan have a rich tradition of art, music, architecture, poetry, dance, and theater going back hundred and hundred of years. (In comparison, my home town has a 150-year-old house with aluminum siding on it, and they call that historical.)

Somebody made a very subtle mistake composing this ad. I don’t blame the writer — I blame Stupid English for being so tricky.

If I could rewrite this ad, it would say, “It’s time you experience the culture ofTaiwan,” or perhaps “It’s time for Taiwan’s timeless culture.” That implies Taiwan already has culture, and the only thing that it is now time for is you to travel there immediately.

Why does the slogan “It’s time for culture in Taiwan,” appears to imply that Taiwan does not have any culture yet? Perhaps it comes from the common English phrases like these:

It’s time for lunch.

It’s time to leave for work.

It’s time to extract the slug from the gunshot victim.

The phrases “It’s time for” or “It’s time to” are used to indicate the beginning of something, something that is not already in progress. If you tell me “It’s time for the football game,” I suppose it is logically valid that you mean the game started an hour ago and is still going on. But that is not the meaning I’d take from you. If the game were half over, and you said, “It’s time for the game,” I would be seriously miffed at you. Your subtle twist of stupid English has made me miss an hour of glorious, pointless violence!

“It’s time for culture in Taiwan to begin” is what the ad slogan says to me. The words in italic are silently and automatically attached to that slogan by the brains of English speakers. How is anybody who is just learning English, or attempting to translate into it from another language using a dictionary and grammar book, supposed to know that?

That is why computer software is still positively lame at translation. Software is just an automated set of rules for converting one set of data into another. It works well at translating the parts of English where the rules actually work. But in English, the rules have more exceptions than not. In cases like this, there aren’t any official rules. Even a really great Grammar Checker would not flag “time for culture” as a problem. How could it?

Eventually they’ll make an app that learns a language by being immersed in it. Neural nets, or algorithms that learn as they go, might be the beginning of such a system. The translating app would make a best guess at translating a phrase, then listen to see if anybody laughs at what it came up with. It would then improve future guesses by having its mistakes corrected. That’s the best way for us humans to learn a crazy stupid language like English. Learn the rules from books, but then just jump in and start using it and make a lot of mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes.

I make them all the time. I work hard to weed them out of my copy, but in the long run, mistakes are good! That’s how I learn (if I’m willing to get past the embarrassment of listening to laughter at my expense.)

Mistakes are not so great if you’re making them in an expensive ad in front of a huge number of readers.

Let’s not ridicule the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Their expensive mistake has provided us a priceless lesson in Stupid English.