Writing ‘rights’ right!

Indonesia has rights to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.

When rights are the simple object of a sentence I rarely see any error in student writing.

  • Women have rights.
  • Workers’ union members have rights.
  • etc.

My own students write sentences like this without error. However, when adding information about these rights in a more complex sentence, they soon run into problems.

I think it’s best to look at this as a lexical issue, rather than a grammatical one.

The word rights (with ‘s’) is often used as part of a lexical phrase, like ‘human rights’, or ‘animal rights’, or ‘rights for women’. Each of these phrases refers to a set of rights (more than one) that belong to a particular group.

On the other hand if you’re only talking about a single right, as in the opening example – withdrawing from ASEAN – then the following structures are common.

  1. (to have) + the + right + to + V1
    • Sony had the right to distribute the recordings in 1985.
    • The president has the right to overturn the new law.
    • The right to vote is under attack across the country.
  2. (to have) + the + right + to + n
    • Every citizen has the right to free medical care.
    • The right to privacy is often ignored by the authorities.
  3. to have + a + right + to + V1
    • I have a right to park here. I live here!

Notice that the right in example 1 is one that is seldom exercised (= used), while the right (‘a right’) in example 3 is probably exercised regularly. The structure in example 3, which is not as common in academic writing, very often begins with either a proper noun or personal pronoun (in this case ‘I’).

So to return to our opening example, we need one of these:

  • Indonesia has the right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are not adhered to.
  • The right to withdraw from ASEAN if trade agreements are broken, is held by all ASEAN members.

Withdrawing from ASEAN is not a right that is exercised regularly, and so the right is more appropriate than a right.

Notice also in an earlier comment I used strong verb-noun collocation: exercise + right. For other words that collocate with right, see here, and for more examples of the structures demonstrated in this post, see here.

Prevent Avoid Protect

Indonesia should prevent its resources from the threat of bio-piracy.

Meaning can become distorted or even lost when you translate directly. In this case we have a direct translation of the Indonesian mencegah, which – in many situations – does indeed translate as prevent.

As usual, I strongly advise Indonesian scholars to forget about the grammar here and to think in terms of vocabulary, or lexis. The following lexical options are NOT possible in English:

  1. prevent + n + from + n (not  __ing)
  2. avoid + n + from + n

Next we have the  ‘good‘ structures. If you like you can click on prevent, protect, and avoid to see examples of these structures.

  1. prevent + n
  2. prevent + n + from + __ing
  3. protect + n
  4. protect + n + from + n
  5. avoid + n

So which structure is best for the bio-piracy example? Well, all are possible!

  1. Indonesia should prevent bio-piracy.
  2. Indonesia should prevent bio-piracy from occurring.
  3. Indonesia should protect its bio-diversity.
  4. Indonesia should protect itself from bio-piracy.
  5. Indonesia should avoid bio-piracy.

See also this post for further analysis of avoid.