Fri, 30 Sep 2011 Feature Article

Please Forgive Me: Unforgiveness is Not a Word

Please Forgive Me: Unforgiveness is Not a Word

Are you sure? I asked myself repeatedly after checking and double checking to make assurance double sure. Ah, but we have been using the word since we were able to tell our adverbs from our adjectives. So I checked again, this time from and other online encyclopaedias. Unforgiveness is not listed all. Then, I went back to my old collections of Penguin, Collins and good old Oxford dictionaries. They don't have it. So, how did we get this word into our vocabulary? Maybe we have been too forgiving.

We can forgive ourselves a thousand times if we have been contributing to the bastardisation of the English language. Should we pause to check the meanings of words in our dictionaries before we use them? Hell no. The lexicographers of the Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus tell us that “English is not shaped or delimited by dictionaries, but by the people who use it every day.” If we have been using the word unforgiveness as the antonym of the noun forgiveness and everybody understands us, why should we bother with issues of grammatical correctness and conventional usage?

He is unforgiving (adjective) is good English. Forgive (verb) us our trespasses as we forgive (verb) those who trespass against us. Unforgivingness, as opposed to unforgiveness, is the noun form of the verb. Even then, unforgivingness is actually pronounced unforgiving (according to, because unforgivingness is not transcribed. In standard pronunciation, the nasal sound (n) and the velar (g) are silent. We have no problem with 'Forgiven'. What about unforgiven?

It pays that we are usually very forgiving when we mispronounce familiar sounds and misconstrue words we should by now have mastered. And (and who said we cannot start a sentence with 'And') it's important that we learn to forgive even minor mistakes, because we would almost always have problems with parallelism, appropriate register and collocation. It is almost acceptable to get the commas wrong. It is even said no two grammarians agree on the correct placement of the commas in a complex sentence. That is why many of us tremble and foam at the mouth at the sheer thought of correct English.

Where we appear confident, we make apologies and beg our way through our submissions. For good reasons, I strategically chose such an apology for the title of this article. It sits well with my usual self-deprecating humour, but it also betrays a certain fear and intellectual anaemia. That means before you pick a pen to correct anything I have written, I am already forgiven. But you see, while it is usually difficult to get it all correct (O.K) in English, it is only in grammar that anybody could be past perfect.

However, I advise that you don't try to be past perfect, especially in English grammar. Being perfect, if you can, is just fine. Or when you want to play it safe, do what Collins recommends: “You can stoke the fires of debate with comments on English usage, spelling, grammar –in fact any linguistic convention you care to espouse or explode.”

Well, I just attempted to stoke the fires of unforgiveness. Forgive me if you find this unforgivable. The other day, a chap talked of preforgiving his wife before she nagged.

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Ottawa, Canada
[email protected]