If you’re helping, don’t foster at the same time

Posted on Tue 01 Mar 2011 @ 5.50am HKT

If you spend long enough time reading stuff in sociology, linguistics, political science, media and culture, social media or business studies, you’ll get to see the word foster a lot.

It’s a useful word, but most people destroy it by not knowing its meaning or how to use it properly, so you get this kind of disaster:

The Institute was set up to help foster friendship and cooperation between A and B. (1)

We’ve all seen ‘help foster’ sentences like that one before. A quarter of the sentences of any sociology book will contain the word ‘foster’ — and half of that will nearly always be latched with the word ‘help.’

Good, clean fun could have been had if the word weren’t used in serious or sombre contexts in so many speeches or writing. In fact, the sentence above is highly problematic from a PR point of view, to say nothing about its insane logic.

‘Foster’ already means help, sparky. If you’re helping, you’re helping. If you’re fostering, you’re fostering. So sentence (1) really reads:

The Institute was set up to help help friendship and cooperation between A and B. (2)

Using ‘help foster’ is not an Asian defect: it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Most people before the 1980s don’t use ‘foster’; since then it’s flooding everything. It is more of an americanised flavour of expression, in the same mould as “the President is desirous of your presence at the event.”

What you’re in fact wanting to say with ‘help foster’ is ‘to try to foster‘ — which is admittedly better English but at the same time a crazy way to describe your organisation or work since your organisation or work has been set up exactly to try to do something.

Sociologists, psychologists and social media types are particularly (and peculiarly) stubborn about using ‘help foster.’ They just won’t budge on this and will often explain their penchant for ‘help foster’ that ‘foster(ing)’ is a sociocultural process or dynamic of some sort. Could be, but so is ‘help.’

Abject fixes

The problem is that people have so fallen in love with the word ‘foster’ that they probably couldn’t even see the value of using other, more natural, wholesome, concise, down-to-goodness words, namely:

The Institute was set up to encourage friendship and cooperation between A and B. (3)

The Institute was set up to nurture friendship and cooperation between A and B. (4)

The Institute was set up to help friendship and cooperation between A and B. (5)

They might be better-sounding, but ‘encourage,’ ‘nurture’ and the uneffacing ‘help’ are still useless: they just mere replacements for ‘help foster.’ Sentences (3), (4) and (5) still don’t go far enough to fix the longwinded ‘friendship and cooperation.’

True fixes

Let’s try something only a very little bit old-fashioned from a first-class English writer/editor:

The Institute was set up to advance cooperation between A and B in… (6)

The Institute was set up to promote cooperation between A and B in… (7)

Out goes ‘friendly’ because cooperation involves friendship or friendliness between the parties — at least it was so the last time I checked. If there’s no friendliness, then it’s arguably ‘collaboration‘ — you have been warned.

To advance‘ is not a newfangled word: it dates from the 1200s. (Only ‘help’ is older.) ‘To advance’ something is to push it forward.

The problem about using ‘promote‘ in the meaning of ‘advance’ or ‘foster’ is that ‘promote’ nowadays have taken on the meaning of a ‘promotional’ activity.

An experienced journalist or PR agent worth his salt would keep ‘friendly’, as in:

The Institute was set up to advance friendly cooperation between A and B in… (7a)

mainly because they are paid to use platitudes and hyperboles (or their antonyms) to generate circulation and publicity for their publications or clients.

A first-class secretary in the 1970s or early ’80s  would probably vary (6) with this:

The Institute was set up to advance friendly relations between A and B. (8)

which would be the most correct way of using all three words ‘advance,’ ‘friendly’ and ‘relations’ in the same breadth.

In other words, nobody is going to object sentences (6), (7), (7a) or (8) because everyone knows what ‘advance’ means exactly — to ‘help foster’ something!

The intellectual won’t be offended because there’s no dumbing-down for him. The layman appreciates reading something that’s understandable on first sight. Cynical journalists won’t deprecate it (or defecate on it!) as just another PR spiel. Even the pretentious (but literate) won’t feel it isn’t grandiose enough.

So it’s official then: people who are fond of ‘help foster’ must pretentious non-intellectuals who use words to hide others’ understanding with PR spiel.

* * *

FYI, grammarfags: there is nothing ungrammatical with any of those sentences above (even sentence 2). Which goes to show that correct grammar doesn’t actually solve your language problems (or absolve your language sins) and may actually be part of the problem and not the solution.

© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

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