Category Archives: Editorial Excellence

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

It’s easy to get confused about reflexive pronouns. Cathy Tingle gets a sense of ‘self’ as she reviews how we refer to ourselves.

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce … myself.’ In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a #NoPainerExplainer tweet, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics):

Use ‘myself’ when you’re the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you’re the object, use ‘me’: ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don’t use ‘myself’ to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this -self or -selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Majesty’ to the Queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself’.

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car …’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if …’ and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If the reader went back and reviewed the context, they would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden, this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a perfectly cromulent word’ (at Conscious Style Guide), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP Advanced Professional Member Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being,’ Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book that depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, is a member of the CIEP’s information team and a tutor for Publishing Scotland. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction copyediting.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: two kinds by Michał Parzuchowski; wrong way by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation

By Annie Jackson

Do you go cold when you hear the words ‘dangling participle’? Does the mere mention of a comma splice or a tautology make you anxious? Do you have a faint memory, perhaps from primary school, that people who write ‘proper’ English never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’? Perhaps you’ve been flummoxed by the terms used in the school materials that you’ve had to work with while homeschooling your children (you are not alone: see this article by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen).

Actually, you almost certainly know much more about grammar and punctuation than you realise. The ‘rules’ are often no more than old-fashioned preferences or prejudice, and may not be relevant anyway. It all depends on the text: a novel for young adults, an information leaflet for patients at a doctor’s surgery, or an annual report for a major company – each requires a very different approach. The tone in which the document is written, and the intended readership, will dictate how strictly grammar and punctuation rules should be applied.

If you work with words, in any capacity, and you feel that your knowledge could do with a brush-up, then the new online course from CIEP, Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation, could be just what you need.

Why both grammar and punctuation?

Let’s see how the Collins Dictionary defines grammar: ‘the ways that words can be put together in order to make sentences’. It defines punctuation as ‘the use of symbols such as full stops or periods, commas, or question marks to divide written words into sentences and clauses’.

This explains why these two subjects have to go hand in hand. Grammar is about putting words together; punctuation helps the reader to make sense of those words in the order in which they have been presented. Used well, the grammar and punctuation chosen should be almost imperceptible, so that nothing comes between the reader and the text. If they are used poorly, the reader will be confused, may have to go back over sentences as they puzzle out the meaning, and may eventually stop reading as it’s just too hard to figure out.

For the want of a comma …

Take this well-known example. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ is a friendly invitation for Granny to join the family meal. If you remove that tiny comma, the poor woman is at the mercy of her cannibal grandchildren.

More seriously, a misplaced comma can have huge legal and financial implications (see ‘The comma that cost a million dollars’ from the New York Times).

Poor grammar can have unintentional comic effects (dangling participles are particularly good for this, as you can see here). It could even affect your love life (see this Guardian article ‘Dating disasters: Why bad grammar could stop you finding love online’).

So it’s worth knowing the rules you must follow, and those that can sometimes be ignored.

Why this course?

Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation is for anyone who works with words. It aims to:

  • clarify the basic rules of English grammar
  • clarify the rules of English punctuation
  • discuss some finer points of usage and misusage
  • explain the contexts in which rules should or need not be applied.

This course alternates units on grammar and punctuation, with two basic units followed by two that go into more detail. Each unit has several sets of short, light-hearted exercises on which you can test yourself to see how well you have taken in the information. The penultimate unit discusses finer points of usage, and finally, there are three longer exercises on which to practise everything you’ve learned from the course. There is no final assessment for the course, but every student is assigned a tutor and is encouraged to ask for their help if any questions arise as they work through it.

There is an extensive glossary of grammatical terms as well as a list of resources, in print and online, for further study. This includes a number of entertaining and opinionated books on grammar which will prove, if nothing else, that even the pundits don’t always agree.

By the end of this course, you should have a clear idea of some of the finer points (and many of the pitfalls) of English grammar and punctuation. You should have developed some sensitivity to potential errors, acquired greater confidence, and learned strategies to make any written work you deal with clearer, more effective, more appropriate and even, perhaps, more elegant. And we hope that you will have found it interesting and entertaining at the same time.

Annie Jackson has been an editor for longer than she cares to admit. She tutors several CIEP courses and was one of the team who wrote the new grammar course. Despite many years wrestling with authors’ language, and before that a classics degree, she realises there’s always something new to learn about grammar.

With thanks to the other members of the course team who contributed to this post.


Photo credits: books by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

 

That which we call a relative clause

Riffat Yusuf is an editor that or who (or possibly which) advocates for what to head ALL relative clauses.

Editing would be simpler if we replaced which, that and who/m with what. No more asking why it was the boy who and not that cried wolf. No more whiching and thating Jack’s house. No more consulting BBC Bitesize Fowlers for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. For people what need precedents, I refer you to hwæt, used extensively as a relative pronoun in the 13th century. I refer you also to more recent usage (albeit the aspirated interrogative form, inconveniently not functioning as a relative pronoun, but go with it), viz. Meg Mortimer from Crossroads: ‘Hwhat are you doing, Sandy?’

To be clear, I’m not grammar averse; I’m grammar resentful. Why was I never taught that there were words to describe other words? Pupils at my school had to study French or German to relearn English. Even then, we made do with barely-there word classes – ‘je’, ‘tu’, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ were the ‘things’ before ‘doing words’. Still, over time I upskilled enough to teach English grammar and sentence structure to other adults, so you’d think I’d be familiar with relative pronouns. And with Hart’s at hand, I surely would have plugged any restrictive and non-restrictive clause-shaped holes. You’d think.

Relative newcomer

My true, actual, concerted, write-it-down learning started when I joined a grammar practice group that SfEP Professional Member Liz Zachary very kindly set up on the online discussion platform Slack. The sentence we were looking at was almost prescient: ‘What was a mystery twenty years ago now seems entirely straightforward.’ (If only!) Fellow Slackers commented on the use of that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive clauses – parenthetical clauses, if you will. Whaaat????

I find the word ‘restrictive’ misleading. In the sentence ‘The house that Jack built is in a desirable neighbourhood’, the restrictive relative clause is ‘that Jack built’. What is being restricted here? Clearly, ‘that Jack built’ refers to the house, the antecedent; how is that restrictive, though? Calling it a defining relative clause is less perplexing because – at the risk of invoking the scorn of grammarians and children in Year 6 – I suppose it defines Jack, not Jill, as the builder.

Pause that clause

The reason why the restrictive relative clause is thus named is not to be found in the 1611 King James Bible. Pausing for digression, however, we observe the use of which where a noun is the antecedent (‘Our Father which art in Heaven’), and that where the antecedent is a pronoun (‘Blessed are they that mourn’). Aesop’s protagonist in the 17th century would have been the boy which cried wolf.

Moving along, we pay homage to Sheila Graves Geoghegan. Who was this scholar who in 1975 wrote, nay, hand-typed, authoritatively on the usage of relative clauses in Old, Middle and New English? Let’s not stalk her further lest we bump into an obituary, but, Ohio State University, what more does an erudite philologist need to do to be ranked among your notable alumni?

That which is restrictive

Would this be a good time to point out that British English restrictive clauses aren’t restricted to a single head? Whatever is built by Jack can take that or which as its relative pronoun. Or neither. To confound further, Jack can be the man who or that built the house. Either, not neither.

This would not be a good time to dwell upon whom, with its verb-or-preposition-as-object chicanery. The ‘he/she/his/her’ adjudicators for who or whom – straightforward enough for all but this petitioner – likely have their origins in the Pendle witch trials.

Why restrictive, then? For this, we consult Grammarly. To start with, if calling a restrictive clause a definitive clause doesn’t make things clearer, then we can call it an essential clause instead because the information it provides is, um, essential. So, ‘that Jack built’ is an essential part of the sentence that would otherwise read ‘The house is in a desirable neighbourhood.’

If, however, almost everybody except for Cambridge University insists on calling restrictive relative clauses just that, then Jack needs to up sticks for Grammarly’s more sound construction: ‘Children who eat vegetables are likely to be healthy.’ The relative clause-free sentence is ‘Children are likely to be healthy.’ Here, even I can see how the relative clause ‘who eat vegetables’ puts restrictions on the antecedent noun: it’s not children who exercise, or who are happy or who engage in any other health-giving pursuit that are being referred to.

And so to trample on non-restrictive relative clauses. This much I have learned: you can recognise a non-restrictive clause in British English because it always takes which as its relative pronoun. It must be offset by a pair of commas; in a sentence, a non-restrictive clause looks like this: ‘The house, which Jack built, is in a desirable neighbourhood.’ And if you swap the commas for brackets – ‘(which Jack built)’ – it’s easier to discern the clause’s aside-like, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-defining function.

I haven’t unearthed the grammar shortcuts or mnemonics I’d hoped to when I set out to learn more (anything) about relative pronouns and relative clauses. But if syntax acquisition is not beyond the ken of seven-year-olds, then there’s hope for late bloomers like me. Such as I? Here we go again …

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: houses by Lee Jeffs; tomatoes by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commas: the chameleon conundrum

Commas can be very useful little additions in our punctuation arsenal but they can also be intensely irritating. Luke Finley discusses using commas with conjunctions and independent clauses – an insertion that can raise questions and even arguments.

When I looked at commas in the July/August and September/October 2017 issues of Editing Matters, I warned that I was covering only a few of the uses of this chameleon of the punctuation world. Another that has come up on the member forums since then is their use when joining two independent clauses.

My thanks go to Shuna Meade for raising the question on the forum, and to the respondents on the thread for helping to clarify the point (and providing the chameleon metaphor!).

What’s the issue?

Some of us were taught (and some of us have ten-year-olds who are still being taught) never to use a comma before and or but when joining two independent clauses. In reality, there’s clearly no such rule.

I am a copy-editor and I work from home

I am a copy-editor, but I used to work for the council

You could insert a comma in the first example or delete the one in the second without making either of these sentences wrong. But if that’s true, why use a comma in one case and not the other? The choice of conjunction is different, clearly, but is that the decisive factor? Not necessarily; these sentences are also acceptable:

I am a copy-editor, and I have a ten-year-old son

Nick has a son too but he’s already a teenager

In the absence of a strict grammatical rule, then, how do we decide?

Close connection

The strength of the connection between the two clauses is probably the most useful consideration. In my first example I chose not to use a comma because the two clauses seemed inextricably linked: the fact that I work at home tells you something relevant about the kind of copy-editor I am.

In the second example there is a shift of focus between past and present: the comma marks this more distant connection.

In the third example, omitting the comma might misleadingly imply a connection (some illegal, nepotistic subcontracting arrangement?) between two clauses that aren’t very closely related.

The fourth is maybe the most ambiguous case: I felt that the shift here was between the previous sentence and this one, not within the sentence, so I didn’t need a comma. But this is a style choice and you’d be free to approach it differently.

However, it’s worth noting that, by definition, but is generally more likely to introduce a contrast or a change of emphasis than and, so the comma is more likely to be appropriate.

Consider also whether there’s a second subject in the second clause: if so, the relationship between the two clauses is likely to be less close – although this is certainly not always the case.

Removing ambiguity

The comma before a conjunction can help to prevent misreading:

Aristotle was an early empiricist and no great thinker …

Quite a bold claim! But the sentence continues:

… who followed could be taken seriously without having engaged with his works.

Serious misunderstanding may be unlikely here, but a comma before the conjunction would prevent an unintended jarring or comical effect that might bring the reader up short.

Prosody

Commas are sometimes described as marking natural pauses in a sentence. Steven Pinker (The Sense of Style, Penguin, 2014) points out that this was once their main function, citing Jane Austen’s famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice – its two commas would now both be regarded as incorrect. Dickens also peppers his long sentences with commas: some of them now seem unnecessary or wrong, but if you ever have to read his work aloud, you might be grateful for them.

The description of commas as marking a pause isn’t always helpful – it’s fairly subjective, and it doesn’t apply equally to all comma uses. It might be worth bearing in mind in relation to the usage discussed here, though: where there’s a shift of focus as already discussed, a pause is also more likely.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Chameleon by Cécile Brasseur; Pride and Prejudice by Elaine Howlin, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Gerunds: it’s all to do with behaviour

Gerunds can be tricky beasts. But Luke Finley has got the measure of them, and guides us through some of their uses.

The gerund is a verb in its -ing form that is functioning like or as a noun. Distinguishing between the gerund and the present participle – also the verb in its -ing form – is not always easy, but generally it can be regarded as a gerund if it’s behaving more like a noun, and as a present participle if it’s behaving more like an adjective. Recognising the ambiguities of this in practice, modern grammars tend not to categorise them separately: Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar talks about the ‘gerund-participle’.

Clear-cut uses

In some positions, it’s quite clear that the -ing form is functioning as a gerund. For example, where it’s used as the subject or object (or part of it):

Writing a sample sentence will clarify this

I’m trying to communicate this in writing

Sometimes a modifying adjective will make the noun function of the gerund clearer:

Poor-quality writing won’t help

The explanation won’t be clear if the writing is of poor quality

In other situations the gerund may be harder to identify:

My deftly explaining this aspect of grammar will help many thousands of people

The -ing word here is modified by an adverb: definitely verb-like rather than noun-like behaviour. But it’s still part of the noun phrase, so it’s a gerund.

Another common use of gerunds is in forming compound nouns:

In my free time I enjoy water-skiing, base-jumping and free-ironing*

*Some artistic licence has been employed in this sentence.

This process seems especially popular in the world of corporate jargon: brainstorming, streamlining, upscaling, and so on.

Because of the gerund’s dual properties of noun and verb, new verbs are often then back-formed from these compound nouns; to crowdsource might be the kind of neologism some people love to hate, but it’s a good demonstration of the elasticity of language.

Trickier uses

One trickier aspect of usage is deciding between the gerund and the to-infinitive to follow a verb. Sometimes only one or the other is possible. In other cases either is possible but the meaning may be subtly different. This can often trip up English learners, even those who are quite fluent. No doubt this is because there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: it depends on what the preceding verb is. If you speak English as a first language you tend to pick the right one by instinct, without even being aware that you’re making a decision; learners of English have to try to memorise lists of what goes with what. In the following examples only the gerund works:

I enjoy running by the sea

I can’t imagine swimming in it

With different verbs – even though the meanings are not that distant from the first versions – the gerund would not work and only the infinitival form will do:

I want to run by the sea

I don’t need to swim in it

The verb like can work either way, but with slight nuances of meaning. With the gerund, the enjoyment of the activity itself is emphasised. With the to-infinitive, there is greater emphasis on the regularity or repeated nature of it:

I like running on Sundays, but sometimes I have to do the ironing instead

I like to run on Sundays, but I only like to swim in the summer

This choice between the gerund and the infinitival form doesn’t occur only after verbs. And in some cases it’s a difficult call. You might see a formulation like the following sentence in a relatively formal text:

We conducted this survey with the aim to understand gender variations in …

Is this wrong? It sounds stilted, but it’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. In a proofread you might judge it just about acceptable and leave it, but in a copy-edit I think you’d be likely to change it to the more natural-sounding gerund: the aim of understanding.

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: Water-skiing by Tobia Sola, Running by the sea by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

#CIEP2020: a conference of community, support and shared interest

The pandemic that traversed the globe in 2020 prompted the annual CIEP conference to go online for the first time. The Institute’s AGM took place in September, with 134 members in attendance, and 218 voting on the resolutions either before or during the AGM. The conference was moved to 2–4 November to allow more preparation time. It attracted 380 attendees, some attending the online sessions as they happened on 2, 3 and 4 November and others watching the recordings released the following week.

Gráinne Treanor reflects on the conference and how digital was different.

Delegates at the 2019 SfEP conference.

A hashtag is such a little thing. Yet #CIEP2020 was like a beacon, which my online Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘a fire or light set up in a high or prominent position as a warning, signal, or celebration’.

Before March 2020, many of us were already accustomed to working alone. Lockdown added weight to the isolation, however. This year, no matter how much we wanted to meet others in our field, there could be no conference.

Having been to the ‘real thing’, I didn’t expect I would enjoy an online conference. Yet from the opening address by CIEP chair Hugh Jackson to his closing remarks, the conference was as informative, educational and enjoyable as I imagine it might have been ‘in real life’.

The session on mastermind groups reminded me why being part of such a group enriches members as professionals and friends, providing a sense of collegiality despite separation.

The business sessions scared me, as usual, because they reminded me of the part of my job I feel least competent about. But Louise Harnby and Erin Brenner chipped away at my fear, offering encouraging insights into things that can make a difference to how we promote our work.

The sessions on macros, style sheets, PerfectIt and Excel provided me with tips on how to work more efficiently. I used to think I was organised, but I’m not so sure after Maya Berger’s session on using Excel to log business records. Fraser Dallachy’s exploration of the Historical Thesaurus of English had me so mesmerised I almost forgot to collect a child from school, and Sarah Grey’s treatment of inclusive language both moved and empowered me. As for Susie Dent and Denise Cowle? I know I’m not the only one who was impressed by Denise’s skill, and the interview was a perfect mix of information, fun, insight and wisdom. My Masters swimming group has a new word in its lexicon: curglaff.

I am an introvert and lockdown suited me at first. But eventually, even I felt lonely. I began to question this way of working, and I struggled with separating work from other parts of my life. My desk beckoned, and let’s face it, what else would I be doing? (I could have done with Marieke Krijnen’s session on editing in the era of COVID-19 a few months ago!)

Thankfully, a renewed personal commitment to my accountability group and participation in CIEP Cloud forums restored some balance. But it was #CIEP2020 that buoyed me right up. True, digital was different. There were no hugs, leisurely chats around coffee tables or explorations of new places. But despite what we lost, we gained much. There were no travel costs, families who missed us or stressful dashes to train stations and airports. #CIEP2020 was more accessible. We didn’t have to choose between excellent sessions or be disappointed that the ones we really, really wanted to attend were full. We could get on with our lives between sessions and sometimes during sessions. There were even times when I cooked dinner while paying attention to presenters. Delegates met people who might not have attended ‘in real life’ and I think many saw possibilities for online conferences, mini-conferences or workshops to complement a ‘real’ conference in the future, perhaps at different stages in the year.

Most important for me, however, was the sense of community, support and shared interest I took for granted at ‘real’ conferences but didn’t expect to find online. Now I can’t help but imagine a little hashtag dotted around the globe, signalling the presence of what Hugh described in his closing words as ‘the humanness and empathy’ that mark us out as members of a community with a common purpose, through which we influence what gets published and disseminated and what gets left behind. Thank you, #CIEP2020. May you shine on.

Gráinne Treanor (@EditorGrainneT) is an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP. She lives in the west of Ireland and edits books, papers and other resources, mainly in the humanities. Her special interests are education (theory, practice, philosophy, teaching, textbooks, literacy, special educational needs including autism), child development, society and religion.


Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Commissioning, editing and proofreading figures

By Liz Jones

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ We’ve probably all heard this said, and perhaps we’ve even said it ourselves. But – as so often in life – the truth is not as clear-cut as that. In the materials we edit, it’s not always a case of either-or, words versus pictures. Often text and images work together to convey complex information. But the figures that support a text (or that a text supports) can only function at their best if they are commissioned carefully to work as part of a complete editorial package, and if any text associated with them is written, edited and proofread just as carefully as the main or body text.

What is a figure?

In CIEP courses in the core skills of proofreading and copyediting, a figure is defined as ‘any piece of artwork (line-drawing, photo, graph, etc), together with its caption’. Figures appear in all genres of book, from children’s picture books and stories to textbooks, workbooks, technical manuals, and all kinds of non-fiction books – from practical to aspirational to academic. Aside from books, we encounter them in all sorts of written communications, from newsletters and press releases to websites, reports, white papers, advertisements … In short, where don’t we find them?

But editors are word people, you might be thinking. Aren’t images beyond their remit? Well, no. Considering the images that work alongside the text – and are often indivisible from its key message – is a crucial part of most copyediting or proofreading work.

Aside from the image itself, a figure will usually have a title or caption, which the CIEP defines as ‘the explanatory words that appear below (or above or beside) an illustration or figure’. There may also be annotations (very short labels) explaining specific parts of the figure, either placed in the relevant position or connected with leader lines.

If the figure is a graph or chart, the axes or sectors will also be labelled with text.

Purpose and function of figures

Figures might be used in text for various reasons:

  • They give the reader information that cannot be easily or effectively expressed using text alone.
  • They can be used to amplify or clarify the message of a passage of text.
  • They work as visual devices that break up large amounts of text and make it more readable.
  • If the document is about a visual subject, the figures might be more important than the text, even if both are necessary.

How to write a good brief

Sometimes editors are responsible for writing the briefs for figures, whether they are illustrations, photos or graphs. This is especially likely if the editor is project managing or development editing.

The person producing the image, or the picture researcher, will need as much information as you can provide on the following:

  • What information the image needs to convey – this might include a sketch, or it might be a list of points to cover
  • Size of the intended image
  • What colours to use
  • Guidance on the preferred style
  • Any cultural considerations, such as images that are not suitable for a particular audience
  • Visual reference materials, if available and helpful
  • The budget – most images are not free!

Reproducing or redrawing figures

If figures are reproduced from another source, or even if they are redrawn based on another source, then the copyright holder of the original image will need to give you permission to use that figure. They might charge a fee for this, or they might simply stipulate how they should be credited. Some credit lines must appear alongside the figure; others can be placed at the end of the document.

Make sure you allow time in the schedule for clearing image permissions.

Writing and editing figure text

Captions should ideally be written in such a way that that they could stand alone and provide useful information about the figure, even if the reader reads none of the other text. Of course, we probably tend to hope that the reader reads every word we write from beginning to end. But in the real world, we have to accept that this doesn’t always happen. People have short attention spans, and they skip about when they read. Captions should also not simply repeat body text word for word, but add to it, and give the reader specific information on the visuals. For a document to feel authoritative and valuable, it’s crucial to write captions that work hard.

Everyone’s life is made much easier if text that appears as part of the figure is editable, though this is not always possible. If it’s not editable by someone with easy access to the files, make sure to get it proofread early, to allow changes to be made by the illustrator, for example. Bear in mind that the more words appear as intrinsic elements in images, the more of a problem this will be for any editions of the publication in other languages.

When an editor is assessing the scope of their work, they should make sure they include the figures in their fee calculations – both checking their content from an editorial point of view and editing any associated text, which can add considerably to the overall word count and the time needed for the job.

Checklist of common problems

Finally, for anyone tasked with proofreading figures, here are some common problems that crop up time and time again:

  • Figure numbering – out of sequence, missing numbers, inconsistency
  • Annotations pointing to the wrong part of an image
  • Inconsistent capitalisation of captions or annotations
  • Inconsistent punctuation of captions or annotations – especially terminal full stops
  • Captions repeated, or applied to the wrong image(s)
  • Captions that seem to contradict the image (for example referring to a colour that looks different in the picture)
  • Figure is flipped, so text is back to front.

The most important message in all of this is that figures appearing as part of a document should be considered at every stage of the editorial process. They should not be dismissed as being mere design elements, or someone else’s responsibility. When authors and editors ensure that figures and text work together effectively, they are a powerful tool for communication.

Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.

 


Photo credits: flowers by Edward Howell; chart by Isaac Smith, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

‘So, there’s such a thing as Canadian English, eh?’

By Janet MacMillan

It’s a question that many a Canadian has heard many a time.

Yes, dear reader, there is such a thing. And it’s complicated, a bit like this large, at times unwieldy nation of nations that I call my home and native land. And like our nation, it carries the influences of our various forebears, starting with the peoples of the various First Nations within the borders of our nation, the Métis, the Inuit, the Québécois (we are officially a bilingual nation), the Irish, Scots and English (of the UK), and the United Empire Loyalists who brought their English after the American Revolution.

A complexity of languages and influences

Added to the amalgam of influences of our more distant forebears, both Indigenous and settler (or ‘late-comers’ as some Métis and Indigenous Peoples prefer), are those of more recent immigrants, many of whom speak other Englishes (for example, Indian English, South African English and Australian English), and others who are speakers of other languages – almost every language under the sun. In 2016, just over 22% of the population reported ‘an immigrant mother tongue’.

At least 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Canada; the First Nations have their own languages; there is more than one Michif (Métis) language; and there are numerous Inuit languages and dialects. Add to that French (21.4% of Canadians) and English (58.1%), and the immigrant languages, and Canada has a complexity of languages and the influences of each one on our English.

Buffalo jumps and bunny hugs

Many of our loan words – for example, chinook, inukshuk, muskeg, saskatoon, moose – come from Indigenous cultures and are shared with American English since the border isn’t a consideration in the Indigenous world, or the natural world for that matter.

Indigenous languages gave us many of our place names: Toronto (Anglicised from the Mohawk language to ‘tkaronto’), Mississauga, Nunavut (‘our land’ in Inukitut), and even our country’s name (Kanata). And there’s the wonderfully named Okotoks, which comes from the Blackfoot word ‘otatok’, meaning ‘rock’.

Some words that originated in Canada have become internationally used. Some are aspects of Indigenous cultures (buffalo jump, pemmican), or our history (Red River cart), or our inventions (poutine, pacemaker, insulin), or our flora and fauna (purple prairie clover, Canada goose, Canada lynx), all of which are used internationally to mean the same thing as Canadians mean.

Other words are truly Canadianisms, words used elsewhere but that have very different meanings here. Imagine being a tourist looking for a room and seeing a sign for ‘Bachelors for rent’! What an odd country that rents out its bachelors. As desirable as some might think that to be, it’s not likely to happen! A ‘bachelor’ is a one-room flat or apartment, a ‘studio’ in at least a couple of other Englishes.

Do you know what an eavestrough is? It’s what an American or a Brit would call a gutter, that thing that collects rainwater at the edge of a roof. That’s only one of the many differences between Canadian English and US English and Canadian English and British English. On the other hand, our English has close ties to both of those Englishes; in fact, we’re a muddle of both, plus the many multicultural influences, which is a real Canadian virtue, if a constant challenge for editors editing Canadian English.

And for confusion, as well as overlap, let’s look at the word ‘rubber’. If I’d written this blog using a pencil and paper, I’d have used a rubber to erase my many changes. If a gentleman asks where to put his rubbers, don’t recoil, he only means his overshoes, ones that don’t extend much beyond the sole of his shoes. Yet someone from Newfoundland or the Maritimes might well be referring to their long waterproof boots. But in American parlance, a rubber is also a condom. Now you know!

What I and many other Canadians wear on our heads in the winter is a toque, what some other Englishes call a beanie or a bobble hat. But get this, we don’t necessarily agree on how to spell it! It’s a loan word too, from the French-Canadian tuque. And to confuse matters further, the tall white hat that chefs wear on their heads is called a toque too; it comes from an Italian word for a silk-like fabric.

We have loonies and toonies, and, no, the first is not a slur. If I have two loonies and a toonie, I have four dollars. (You do the math.) How did they get those names? The one-dollar coin has a loon on it; so two dollars are two loon(ie)s or a toonie. Makes sense to me.

And as to regional variations, how long have you got? Probably longer than my word count permits. As just one example, for a long time I thought Canadians from the prairies and Alberta particularly loved bunnies and gave them lots of hugs. What kind people, giving all those bunny hugs. Only in more recent years have I realised that what someone from Calgary or Saskatoon calls a bunny hug, I call a hoodie. (Some folks might also call it a kangaroo jacket. Yes, we are an animal-loving nation.)

On the far eastern side of the country, Newfoundlanders, whose English has a deep connection to an Irish and English heritage, will ask you ‘Whadda y’at?’, meaning what are you up to or how are you doing – a question heard frequently since the start of the pandemic.

Canadian English, like other Englishes, has mutated over time. When I was growing up in Toronto (mumble-mumble years ago), we had a chesterfield in our living room. Today, many, including me, and my mother too, call it a sofa, and others call it a couch. We all mean the same thing, and we know what we mean.

Editing Canadian English

The Canadian dictionary used by most editors is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edn, 2004), though as the publication date shows, it’s not up to the minute. There are also the Collins Gage Canadian Dictionary (2009) and the Nelson Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary (2013), which are perhaps lesser used. For style guides, those editing Canadian English refer to Editing Canadian English (3rd edn, 2015), TERMIUM Plus, the federal government’s terminology and linguistic data bank, and the Language Portal of Canada, Elements of Indigenous Style, plus a few other resources.

Generally speaking, our preferred spellings are a mix of UK English and US English. While we tend to prefer the -ize spellings (eg organization), we also like our ‘u’s (eg honour, colour), although that wasn’t always the case, and we differentiate between ‘defence’ and ‘defense’ and ‘licence’ and ‘license’, etc. Our choice of punctuation tends to follow that used in the United States: double quote marks for a quotation, single for quotes within a quote, and most punctuation before the end quote mark, for example.

Confusing, eh? Yes, but that’s what makes our language uniquely Canadian, like that interrogative ‘eh?’ used from sea to sea to sea.


With grateful thanks and credit to Jennifer Glossop (editor extraordinaire, born in England, grew up in the US, and a Canadian for many decades) and Dr Suzanne Steele (Métis, with roots that go back to the first families, French and Anishinaabe), and with a tip of the hat to Katherine Barber, Canada’s Word Lady and favourite lexiographer.


Janet MacMillan is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in law, international development, politics, social sciences, and education, who, with her Editing Globally colleagues, edits in various Englishes. Following a successful international career as a lawyer, Janet’s main base is Toronto, with regular spells in Suffolk.

Janet coordinates the CIEP Cloud Club West, helps coordinate the Toronto CIEP group, and attends the Norfolk CIEP group when she can. She happily works in four Englishes and talks regularly in three of them, sometimes all in the same sentence.


Photo credits: maple leaf by Guillaume Jaillet; toque/beanie by Dylan Ferreira, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Pocketbook intrigue: a lockdown look at English

By Melanie James

One of the trends of the COVID-19 lockdown has been an increase in online shopping, not only for groceries to avoid long queues and to self-protect (if one could secure a slot), but also to while away those sleepless hours which, too, have become a symptom of the pandemic experience.

During one particular online browse I was offered a free trial of Audible, the audio-bookseller. Since the arrival of podcasts (which enable me to multi-task), I’ve found my ‘books to be read’ piling up. Perhaps listening to a book might mean I actually finish it! I promptly downloaded my choice: Wuthering Heights. I’d always meant to read it (love the song/seen several film versions/thought I knew the plot). Fast forward and I’m obsessed with it. Joanne Froggatt’s eclectic range of accents to differentiate the dialects and characters is wildly entertaining. Her rendition of the servant Joseph’s broad Yorkshire brogue is just brilliant, although it did require particular concentration if I were to remotely comprehend what he’d said and follow the narrative. It could have been another language.

But it was when I heard that Joseph ‘brought out his pocketbook’ that I was really puzzled. ‘Pocketbook’? That’s an American term, surely, not one we Brits have ever used. I consulted my trusty OED. There it was:

’A pocket-sized folding case for holding banknotes, papers, etc.; a wallet. Now chiefly U.S.’

‘Now chiefly U.S.’ Clearly then, along with those old chestnuts: ‘sidewalk’; ‘gotten’; ‘Fall’ and -ize spellings, ‘pocketbook’ used to be part of what we now term ‘British English’.

And so began my deep dive into the study of English, a language which has become and will doubtless continue to be such a medley of variations on a theme – rather a family or a web of languages – that I wondered whether a more appropriate label might not be coined to better express its global texture and fluid nature. But of course, we already have at least two candidates: World English and Globlish.

Which English?

English is my first language. It is also the lingua franca of 60–70 countries, spoken by an estimated 2.3 billion people (2018), either as their first language or as their second or third language. As an editor, I strive to enforce consistency in terminology and spelling in any given manuscript, ensuring the author’s preference for either British English or American English throughout the text. But why do so many of us only adhere to those two varieties? Why not Scottish English or Irish English, Australian English or Canadian English? Why not Singaporean English? Who decided the standard? And when?

According to David Crystal, the linguistics guru, a language becomes a global one because of the power of those who speak it. Once Britain had established itself as an empire, English was adopted by those who aspired to be part of the elite groups associated with it. It may be surprising to read that access to learning English was expressly reserved for the colonial elite and was not imposed on Indigenous peoples. Limiting access to it was a way to exercise control over them. With Indigenous languages and local dialects being actively encouraged, this also had the effect of firmly segregating those peoples. And so English became the ‘gold standard’. Those who achieved a good command of it could strive for better jobs and enter the world of commerce, the arts, politics and science. Had the British followed a policy of linguistic imperialism, English might even have been resisted.

Standardisation and domination

It was not until 1755 with Samuel Johnson’s authoritative dictionary that rules and standards were applied to English, although word lists had been compiled before. Sixteenth-century English was not as prescribed as it is today, and we find different spelling variations of the same words in Shakespeare’s works, for example, as evidence of that, such as ‘learnt’/’learned’; ‘inke’/’ink’; ‘hypocrisie’/’hypocrisy’. Today we (still) talk of the ‘Queen’s English’. What we mean by that lofty standard is that those who speak and write that variant may be judged differently from those who do not. Even now, those who learn English around the globe are encouraged to acquire the haughty tones which might classify them as, perhaps, ‘better’ English speakers.

There is more than an element of kudos attached to speaking and writing English; it offers access to worldwide opportunities. We know that academics simply must publish in English if they are to reach the widest possible audience, whatever their specialised subject. English is the language used at international conferences, the working language of many global organisations, and of the travel industry. I worked in France, Belgium and Germany for over 20 years and was fortunate enough to work with some iconic brands. The working language of all of them was English – British English.

American English has, however, become the dominant standard since the American rise to superpower status after the Second World War. British and American English had been diverging since the two nations first separated and likely as soon as the first British settlers found animals and vegetation they’d not encountered before which they needed to classify. Perhaps divergence did not seem important then, given the geographical divide.

Adoption and adaptation

When a country adopts English, it immediately adapts it, claims Crystal. It will use standard English for global purposes but it will reshape it and fashion it, manipulate it every which way in order to better express its own particular needs. The adapted version will encapsulate the local cultural identity and be a means of expressing solidarity, even to the point where it may even become unintelligible to other English speakers – which perhaps is the aim.

Webster’s 1783 American English dictionary sought to give every letter in a syllable its due proportion of sound which means that today we see ‘traveler’ and ‘honor’ in American English but ‘traveller’ and ‘honour’ in British English. Small matter perhaps because such minor adjustments are still understood. But evidently, over time, the English language has been used as a framework to create other versions specific to particular groups and communities. Such variants became languages in their own right, unique and particular to those who created them based on their own narratives. Take, for example, ‘Singlish’. The fusion of English and Singaporean is so highly stylised, it cannot be understood by most English speakers. Language expresses identity, solidarity, inclusion … exclusion. Enslaved African Americans developed their own dialect from the English they learned in order to conceal their intended meaning from their enslavers. Such a tactic created a new language community by manipulation of a forced second language.

Take, too, the various dialects that are drawn from multiple ethnic groups today, typically spoken by young people, often dismissed, even stigmatised, such as ‘Jafaican’ (fake Jamaican). What about the secret languages which emerge as a way to show belonging in a marginalised subculture such as the gay community? Not so long ago, its very existence was deemed so immoral its members were forced to develop a secret code to talk to each other as a form of self-protection. Urban Dictionary, the online slang repository, may be denigrated by purists for its low-brow content but it has 65 million visitors each month. Such variants, anti-languages, used by subcultures often on the very edge of society, can become ‘cool’ and trickle into mainstream usage, even being adopted by those who originally deemed them to be socially unacceptable. Urban’s motto, ‘Define Your World’, is most illuminating, encapsulating the very essence of language.

The American melting pot into which Indian, Yiddish, German, Chinese, African, Italian, Caribbean, South American, Spanish and myriad other languages were poured, stirred and simmered over time has produced a version of English which caters to the needs of all those peoples. It is undoubtedly a compromise, but it does the job. Today we see the Yiddish ‘klutz’ (clumsy) and ‘schmuck’ (fool) in British English, both having been incorporated into American English during the great migrations of the last two centuries. American English certainly influences British English. But there are many differences, too. The American ‘cookie’ for example, from the Dutch ‘koekje’ is vastly different from the British ‘biscuit’ which is the same baked treat nevertheless. In American English, ‘biscuit’ translates to ‘muffin’ and is served at breakfast but which I would tuck into it at afternoon tea! The potential for misunderstanding
is rife.

Some transformations, however, can be easily identified. ‘Santa Claus’ derives from the Dutch, ‘Sinterklaas’. In that derivation we not only see the word morph but also the ‘sint’ (no a) himself. Traditionally he’s a Dutch/Flemish religious character, in crimson robes with a staff, who bestows gifts on children on 6 December. Santa Claus today is a corpulent, bearded, jolly fellow, in a fur-trimmed bright-red jumpsuit who rides the skies bearing gifts for all on 25 December/Christmas Day. In Britain he is known as Father Christmas but the American English version of ‘Santa’ is becoming more and more popular as American English continues to influence and permeate its British forebear.

Borrowing, accommodating and evolving

As I moved around Europe with my family, we mastered the different languages as best we could but also borrowed from them so that now we often find ourselves mixing them all to arrive at the best sense of what we might mean. I still use German words of command for my dogs even though one of them didn’t even live with us in Germany and came from Greece. And I admit to cursing using a particular French term. Such mixing and borrowing, or code switching and code mixing, is common behaviour. Language transfer can be just the ticket if you can’t remember or don’t know a word in a particular language, or if you know that your interlocutor knows the foreign language word which expresses a concept better than the language you are using. Our daughter coined the term, ‘I blaguise’ by which she means ‘I’m joking’. There is no verb ‘blaguiser’ in French. The verb is ‘blaguer’ – ‘to joke’ – or must be constructed using ‘faire’ (to make) to arrive at ‘faire une blague’ or a different word altogether, ‘plaisanter’. She also concocted ‘cahootian’, meaning one with whom she is in cahoots! Both terms are part of our family-speak now.

I’ve always marvelled at how other nationalities could speak English so well. As an expat I did my best to learn my host country’s language but I could never equal my colleagues’ linguistic abilities; those who flitted from their first language to English so effortlessly. Indeed, for many of them it seemed as if English was their second first language! Nevertheless, it was common to articulate more clearly in their company and to speak more slowly, avoiding jargon and word plays. Brutt-Griffler claims that such changed behaviour should not be seen as ‘talking down’ but rather as a way to accommodate. She asserts that the price a world language must be prepared to pay is that it will be transformed and adapted. It will inevitably become a hybrid and purists will simply have to hold back.

English may be the world’s lingua franca now. It may not always be. In the meantime, it will continue to evolve, be shaped and moulded to suit the purposes of its many users. Whatever has been, English, or World English or Globlish will have to be more flexible than ever and take account of genders, race, new and emerging cultures and lifestyles if it is to continue to dominate. If American English persists, perhaps, too, we might see ‘pocketbook’ in use in British English again.


References

Brutt-Griffler, J (2002). World English: A Study of its Development. Australia: Footprint Books.

Crystal, D (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D (2012). English Worldwide. In R Hogg (ed.), A History of the English Language, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 420–39. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511791154.010.

Crystal, D (nd). davidcrystal.com

Luu, C (2018). The Unspeakable Linguistics of Camp. Lingua Obscura. https://daily.jstor.org/unspeakable-linguistics-camp/

McArthur, T (2009). World English and world Englishes: Trends, tensions, varieties, and standards. Language Teaching, 34/1: 1–20, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444800016062

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Melanie James, from Take it as read, writes for businesses but also edits anything to do with history, particularly WW1. Having lived in Europe for over 20 years, she likes to think she speaks French, German and a smattering of Dutch. She also knows one word of Lëtzebuergesch (’moien’). Melanie’s husband works in Luxembourg so she visits when she can. Having just returned from the Grand Duchy, she is now in quarantine!


This post originally appeared on Melanie’s own blog in July 2020: From pandemic browsing to pocket-book intrigue

Photo credits: Haworth moor by Rachel Penney; Father Christmas/Santa Claus by Alicia Slough, both on Unsplash. Dictionary by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.