Years ago, I often brown bagged my lunch and ate in the office canteen. A few of us eventually found ourselves eating together more often than not, and we got to know each other through conversation. One of my lunch buddies, who later became a good friend, was a woman who had emigrated from Russia. Her English was outstanding, and if her accent hadn’t given her away, no one would have been able to discern her nationality from her command of the language.
Most of the time.
In one of our lunch sessions, another colleague asked my friend about her husband. Somewhere along the line, the colleague asked how the two had met, and my Russian friend breezily answered, “Oh, at the wedding.”
We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. Finally someone piped up, “Was it an arranged marriage?”
“No, no, no!” my friend exclaimed after her grammatical foible became clear. “We met at someone else’s wedding!”
And there you have it: the power of one little word. Even a word as simple as the can make a big difference to the meaning a speaker is trying to convey.
You see, the Russian language doesn’t employ the use of articles. In fact, it doesn’t even have them. There’s no translation for words like a, an, and the. My friend, who did a bang-up job with our language, knew she needed to put one in her sentence, but she grabbed the wrong one. She chose the definite article (the) instead of the indefinite article (a), and consequently implied that she and her husband had met at their own wedding.
After she clarified, we all laughed at visions of a stoic Russian bride and groom shaking hands on the steps of some imposing Soviet-era building before heading inside to tie the knot. We should have known better.
This story still makes me chuckle, but it also serves as a powerful reminder of the power of words. Choose wisely, my friends. Not every misstep will leave people laughing.