One of our members of staff recently phoned his GP practice and asked to see a specific doctor. ‘Sorry, he only comes in pro re nata,’ the receptionist told him. It wasn’t until he’d put the phone down and looked up the phrase that he knew for sure what she had meant, writes Cathy Relf.
It would be considered crass – and more than a little odd – for a native English speaker speaking to another native English speaker to switch to another language mid-sentence. So why do some people think it’s acceptable to do so with Latin?
To be effective, writing needs to be clear and accessible. It shouldn’t confuse the reader or require them to reach for a dictionary. In fact, when someone has to look away for long enough to look up a word, they may never return.
Only a minority of native English speakers have any formal knowledge of Latin. In the UK in 2011, just 9,650 pupils out of a total of 5.15 million took a Latin GCSE. That’s less than two per cent. Admittedly, that proportion was slightly higher when your average businessperson was at school, but the fact remains that the moment you slip in a line of Latin, or even over-pepper a sentence with post, ad hoc and per se, whether it’s apropos (appropriate) or not, you risk alienating the majority of your readership.
There are some professions – medicine and law, for example – where Latin is a crucial part of the language (although lawyer Wayne Schiess makes a good case against using unnecessary Latin in legal writing). But outside of those professions, there are few cases where using an expression that your readers may not understand would be better than writing it in plain English.
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with studying or taking an interest in Latin – after all, much of our language is based on it. And it’s fine to use commonly understood abbreviations such as eg, ie, etc, if they’re genuinely more appropriate than for example, that is, and and so on. Just make sure you use them correctly.
Latin on the loose
We’ve rounded up five examples of Latin obstructing meaning, below. If you’re not familiar with the Latin terms, hover over them for a rough translation, or click to see the full definition.
Here’s Kathy Gyngell blogging for the Daily Mail:
‘This is what the Bishops’ amendment to exclude child benefit from Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit cap plan, inter alia, endorses – the continuation of entitlement.’
A paper from the Social Development Agency:
‘This Vademecum is intended as a handy reference guide to using budget heading 04.03.03.03. on information, consultation and participation of representatives within undertakings.’
A Wired.com article on the rules of cooking:
‘While there are certainly still subjective and somewhat impenetrable qualities to one’s cuisine — de gustibus non est disputandum — there is an increasing rigor in the kitchen.’
An article on robo-cars:
‘And given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on police use of GPS, even when tracking criminals, the idea that more technology in the car leads ipso facto to more government control is questionable.’
And, making a case for the teaching of Latin in schools, Boris Johnson writing in the Telegraph:
‘Suppose you are captured by cannibals in the Mato Grosso, and you find a scrap of Portuguese newspaper in your hut revealing that there is about to be an eclipse; and suppose that by successfully prophesying this event you convince your captors that you are a god and secure your release – I reckon you would be thankful for your Latin, eh? And even if you reject any such practical advantages (and, experto crede, they are huge), I don’t care, because they are not the point.’
How many of them could you follow, without checking the definitions?
With the possible exception of Boris Johnson, whose Latin is at least relevant to the subject in hand, these are all quite bizarre language choices. In the first case, ‘among other things’ would have been a much better and clearer expression than inter alia.
In the second, the use of Vademecum (or vade mecum, as it is more commonly spelt) alongside ‘handy reference guide’ is tautologous. It essentially says ‘this handy reference guide is intended as a handy reference guide’.
In the third, what purpose could there be for writing in Latin, other than for the writer to show that he can? And in the fourth, the ipso facto is unnecessary – if any clarification is needed, ‘automatically’ or ‘directly’ would do fine.
The case against
While studying Latin is admirable, using it in everyday language isn’t. Not only does it sound pompous and offputting, it obstructs communication. Even Boris doesn’t make an argument for actually using it, merely for knowing it in case of encounters with cannibals who can’t read newspapers.
When writing, always keep your readers at the front of your mind. What do they need to know, and how can you best communicate it? If the answer to the second question is ‘in Latin’, then by all means go ahead – but those occasions are, we suspect, rare.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you spotted some Latin on the loose? Can you defend any of the above examples? Do you have a particular phrase that you’re fond of dropping into writing? Leave us a comment below.