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  • Writer's pictureIan Mac Eochagáin

The bad English in Sanna Marin’s New York speech

Can’t the Finnish Government website run a basic spell check?



Sanna Marin, who will soon be the ex-prime minister of Finland, spoke to the graduating class of New York University last week. A couple of people have asked me about the level of English in her speech, which has been published in full on the Finnish Government’s website. My conclusion: it’s not great. The speech contains both spelling and grammatical mistakes that could have been corrected with the Word spellchecker. That’s fine if all you’re doing is speaking, but if you’re going to put the full text online, you should check it’s as good as possible. Marin is known for maintaining a glossy public image. Why then didn’t she get a native English speaker to check her speech, at the very latest before it was uploaded to the Government website for the world to see?


The nitty-gritty


I’ve divided the bad English I’ve found in Marin’s speech into three areas: spelling, grammar and word choices.


Spelling


And because I realized that it was also my responsibility, not someone elses.


This should of course read:


And because I realized that it was also my responsibility, not someone else’s.


You need an apostrophe between “else” and “s” because it’s a possessive.


Climate change and biodiversity loss are a threatening our very existence.


I’m going to presume this was a typo, rather than Marin trying to use the colloquial English present continuous “a-threatening”. The “a” is superfluous:


Climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening our very existence.


Another spelling mistake:


Why am I giving this advise to you?


The verb is “advise” and the noun is “advice”. Thus, this should read:


Why am I giving this advice to you?


This mistake is underlined in blue by Microsoft Word, making it easy to spot and correct. The same goes for this error:


I also want things to change but I can not do it alone.


This should be written as one word:


I also want things to change but I cannot do it alone.


These spelling errors are very surprising. All that Marin’s assistant had to do was hit F7 and correct these glaring mistakes before uploading the text to the Government website. Alas, they didn’t.


Grammar


The biggest eyesore for me in the transcript related to the word “advice”. In English, this is a non-countable noun, meaning we don’t say “one advice, two advices”, etc.


Advice number one: You have the right to want things and to want things to change.


I’d use “piece of advice” here:


Piece of advice number one: You have the right to want things and to want things to change.


Marin proceeds to say “advice number two” and “advice number three”. This is particularly odd as she’s just said “piece of advice” before this enumeration: “This is why I want to give you three pieces of advice about change”. Again, I don’t care about bad English when people are speaking, but if you’re going to publish this on a government website, you should make sure it’s correct and consistent. Whoever wrote this speech knew that we say “piece of advice” in English. Why couldn’t they keep saying it throughout?


Finnish does not have articles, either definite or indefinite, so using them in English can be problematic for Finnish speakers. Here are the points in Marin’s speech at which she used articles incorrectly:


Superfluous definite article:

I wanted to stop climate change and see the societies become more sustainable.

No change can happen without the will.

But the history did not end.


I would rewrite these sentences as follows:


I wanted to stop climate change and see societies become more sustainable.

No change can happen without will/willpower.

But history did not end.


Superfluous indefinite article:

If I had waited for a permission from others to take my stands, I would still be waiting for that permission.

This is why my key advice to you today is not actually an advice but a task.


I would rewrite these as follows:


If I had waited for permission from others to take my stands, I would still be waiting for that permission.

This is why my key advice to you today is not actually a piece of advice but a task.

or

This is why my key advice to you today is not actually advice but a task.


Lack of definite article:

We have expected our values such as freedom of speech, rule of law, gender equality and democracy to bloom hand in hand with the expansion of free market economy.


I would write:

We have expected our values such as freedom of speech, rule of law, gender equality and democracy to bloom hand in hand with the expansion of the free market economy.


(You could also say “the expansion of a free market economy”.)


Finally in grammar, the perennial bugbear, “also”:


The right to safe abortion is being limited also in Europe.


The “also” is in the wrong place. Alternatively, it could be replaced with “too”:


The right to safe abortion is also being limited in Europe.

or

The right to safe abortion is being limited in Europe, too.


Word choices


Some of the words chosen in this speech do not suit the context. They mean something other than what the speechwriter thought. Here are a couple of examples:


The swollen amount of inequality and a lack of social mobility are challenging our ideas about everyone having the same possibilities and freedoms in life.


I would argue that you can’t say that there’s an “amount” of inequality, let alone a “swollen amount”. I get the idea: that there’s more inequality than there used to be. We just don’t generally use the adjective “swollen” in English in this kind of context. I’d say this differently:


Heightened/increased/growing inequality and a lack of social mobility are challenging our ideas about everyone having the same possibilities and freedoms in life.


Regular readers will know about my personal crusade against Finns’ use of “renew” in English (see my old post about Finnair for more). Briefly: you can only “renew” something that has expired or is about to expire, like a driving licence or insurance policy. It doesn’t mean changing the qualities or properties of something. I think the word is misused here:


I wanted to see renewed legislation on equal marriage


Marin is talking about when she was in her early twenties, before same-sex marriage was legalized in Finland. Thus, there wasn’t any imminently expiring legislation on the matter that needed to be renewed (insofar as legislation can be “renewed” anyway). What she really means is that she wanted to see a transition from the legislation on partnerships for same-sex couples to the right to full marriage for all regardless of sex, which was indeed passed. She thus did not want to see the legislation “renewed” but instead:


I wanted to see new/overhauled/reformed/amended legislation on equal marriage


Conclusion: don’t spare F7


Again: I don’t care what kind of English a public speaker whose native language is not English uses in a speech. However, it’s a different matter to publish the text of the speech on the website of the government you lead, and not run a basic spellcheck. The least that the intern, speechwriter or whoever uploaded this transcript could have done is to hit F7 and adopt its suggestions. One better would have been to have a language professional correct the document.


The F7 key won’t get worn out from overuse. Run a basic spell check. And if you really care about how your English looks online, contact a specialist like me. With my Reload™ service, I’ll turn your text from bad to English you won’t be ashamed of. And if you’re not happy, I’ll give you your money back.


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