Tag Archives: Editorial Excellence

Context is everything: how learning a language shed new light on my editing practice

In this post, which moves from Hollywood film stars to the hairdressers and Dutch language textbooks, Julia Sandford-Cooke explores how learning a new language helped her to reflect on her professional skills.

I often think about Antonio Banderas. Well, not the Spanish actor specifically, but rather his character in the 1999 film, The 13th Warrior. He plays Ahmad, an Arabic-speaking scholar improbably taken prisoner by Norse warriors whose chief interests are picking fights and gossiping around the campfire. In a famous (and possibly unintentionally hilarious) sequence, Ahmad quietly observes their chatter. It is initially unintelligible (the actors are apparently speaking modern Norwegian) but, as time passes, English words creep in, indicating his growing understanding, until he’s suddenly able to insult their mothers with astounding fluency and a confident grasp of complex grammar. Subsequent dialogue is in English, which now represents what we understand to be the language of the Norsemen.

These days, the movie is remembered almost as much for this scene as for being one of Hollywood’s biggest financial failures, allegedly making a $130 million loss. It’s a clever and memorable cinematic concept but, in my experience, not a very realistic way of learning a foreign language.

Gossip goal

I sit in the hairdressing salon, my face as fixed in concentration as Ahmad’s, while the stylists and customers chat in rapid Dutch. After just over a year in the Netherlands, I, like him, would love to decode the juicy gossip around me but merely listening to a new language will not miraculously make me fluent in it. I can make out the odd word but it certainly doesn’t pop out as English (well, apart from ‘Netflix’ and ‘weekend’). Instead, it just sounds vaguely familiar and by the time I’ve looked it up in my mental dictionary (‘“makkelijk” … I know that one … “Difficult”? No … “Important”? No … ah, I have it! “Easy!”’) the conversation has moved on and I still have no idea what they’re talking about. And as for speaking to them – well, I won’t be insulting their mothers any time soon or, more likely, complimenting them on such a flattering cut ‘n’ colour. But it’s my ultimate objective to be able to take part in their conversations.

It’s all about confidence

Antonio Banderas’ first language is, of course, Spanish, so it’s somewhat ironic that his character hears familiar words as English. My Amsterdam friends whose first language is Spanish all learned English at school and now speak it fluently and rapidly. If they forget the odd word, it doesn’t matter – they just keep on talking and we understand them just fine.

Significantly, they’re also much more likely than the first-language English speakers I know to have focused on learning and speaking Dutch since moving here. Yes, it is true that everyone can speak English here so there is an argument that it’s not worth the hassle, but personally, I feel that if you want to integrate in a country, you should at least make an effort to learn its language. In any case, I’ve found that just because they can speak English doesn’t mean they will, which is fair enough, I suppose. And it’s also pretty useful to understand what you’re being told in emergency situations, or on public transport.

Perhaps the habit of learning languages is more ingrained in those who do not speak English as their first language. It’s pretty common for these immigrants – both adults and children – to switch between three or four languages. Much of it is about confidence – going out onto the unforgiving streets knowing you’ll make mistakes and trying not to care.

My personal lack of confidence is mixed with an equally unhelpful stubborn pride. I insist on conducting business in bad Dutch in shops and cafés and while having my COVID-19 vaccination, even if waiters insist they don’t understand my slight mispronunciations or I get jabbed in the arm I sleep on. And then I go home and cringe at the fool I’ve made of myself. Speaking isn’t even my forte in English so it’s no wonder I struggle so much in Dutch. It’s some consolation that my Spanish-and-English-speaking friends admit that learning Dutch as an adult is hard because our confidence drops as we get older and we’re more aware of the implications of getting it wrong.

So how do these experiences affect my editing practice?

Learning Dutch has made me look at my work from several new perspectives.

Being a beginner.

It’s humbling to start from scratch. There’s so much I don’t know and I have to work very hard to know it. I’ve been in the conscious incompetent stage of learning for quite a while now. It simply isn’t easy, whatever Ahmad might think. I hope this awareness makes me more empathetic with writers and other people I interact with professionally. And of course, this doesn’t just apply to learning a language – it applies to learning any skill.

Being an expert.

At the same time, it reminds me that I’ve been through the editorial wilderness and emerged, after more than 20 years, with a huge experience and solid skills that clients value. It’s taken a lot of work and effort to get here but it has been worthwhile. I can prove to myself that persistence pays off.

Keeping me alert.

Editing is an intellectually stimulating profession. Learning a language before and after work often feels like yet another way to tire my brain. But it also exercises slightly different aspects of my mind, and just watching Netflix of an evening feels less and less of a constructive way to spend my time.

Brushing up on my grammar.

I have to admit that it draws attention to my tenuous grasp of grammatical theory. The argument that ‘children can learn a language without trying and therefore so can you’ just doesn’t fly. I have to consciously decode the word order following a coordinating conjunction or the effect of an inactive word form. My middle-aged mind has to consciously think ‘Ah, that’s a modal verb, which sends the second verb to the end of the clause as an infinitive’. That’s not a thought the average toddler has.

Understanding mistakes.

Anyone who has edited the writing of those for whom English is an additional language will have noticed particular mistakes relating to the authors’ translations of their thoughts into English. There are plenty of examples from Dutch speakers but recently I passed a woman trying to explain to someone that he could get the item he wanted from the ‘warehouse’ down the road. She meant department store – warenhuis in Dutch. It is illuminating to realise why certain errors occur.

Drawing attention to learning methods.

I’m a textbook editor but I rarely open my Dutch textbook, other than to check the grammar rules. Interaction is key (whatever Ahmad might think). Purists may sniff at the gamification of language learning in apps such as Duolingo and Babbel but actually, I find their bite-sized, repetitive and memorable methods convenient and engaging. I currently have a 467-day streak in Duolingo, meaning I’ve actively practised my Dutch on the app every day for about 15 months. But I combine it with watching (or trying to watch) Dutch movies, listening to Dutch music (Dutch rhymes in a very satisfying way) and having fairly regular face-to-face Zoom lessons. Julie, my lovely tutor on iTalki , is endlessly cheerful and patient, even when I’m clearly speaking complete nonsense. And, of course, there’s no substitute for immersing myself in everyday situations like, for example, going to the hairdresser. All of this suggests that those who produce learning materials should think holistically – no single method is enough – and, of course, no student approaches learning in the same way.

So I often think of Spanish-speaking Antonio Banderas as an Arabic-speaking scholar listening to Norwegian-speaking actors speaking English to represent speaking Norse. Learning a new language is hard. But one day I too will be able to decode the gossip and maybe even join in – without cursing anyone’s mothers. Not intentionally, anyway.

About Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke

Julia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has spent more than 20 years in publishing and just over one year in Amsterdam. When she’s not speaking bad Dutch, she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 

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: Amsterdam canal by Ethan Hu; Dutch flag in Amsterdam by Luca Lago, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

How can an editor help with brand voice?

Editors do more than put your style guidelines into action. Louise Marsters explains how they can make your words sing to the tune of your voice guidelines too – and keep you on brand.

Your visual identity is all sorted: logo, colour palette, typeface, primary and secondary imagery. Hey, you look good! But how do you sound?

Let’s look at:

  • why words are part of your brand too
  • how tone of voice conveys your personality
  • why everyone writing for your brand needs one voice
  • the voice tools already in your style guide.

Words are part of your brand too

When we talk about brand, we often mean visual identity.

We approve brand colours, agonise over typefaces, workshop logos, define imagery style and visualise data. We document this ‘look and feel’ in a set of brand guidelines, and deploy it consistently across our advertising and reports, stationery and website.

But the impression we make goes beyond these tangible elements. How do we speak and connect with our audiences? What sort of language and words do we use?

Written style – call it ‘verbal identity’ or brand voice – describes a brand’s ‘personality’. That personality is always the same, so can be just as distinctive as visual style.

Are you a fruit smoothie brand with a personality that is informal, witty and subversive? Are you an industry body that is authoritative, forward-thinking and inclusive?

Successful brands stand out when they look and feel consistent across each piece of content they create. And brands that sound consistent gain credibility and readers’ confidence.

Enter the editor, to keep sound and brand aligned.

Tone of voice conveys your personality

If brand voice is our personality, tone of voice is how we express it.

It’s not so much what we say, but how we say it. The words we choose will influence how our content is received – and whether it’s trusted.

Do we talk in terms of ‘exploration and production assets’ (standard industry vocabulary, but detached and corporate) or ‘oilfields and oil wells’ (straightforward, real)? Is our brand about ‘strategic planning and development’ or ‘building homes for the next generation’?

Both tones can exist, depending on the context.

A corporate law firm’s brand voice or personality might be expert, commercial and professional. It might adopt a straightforward, useful and concise tone of voice (cool) for its client updates, but an accessible, responsive and committed tone (warm) for its pro bono reporting.

Its personality is the same, no matter the audience, channel or purpose of the content.

For an editor working on the firm’s communications, personality and tone are the prescription lenses for their editorial goggles.

Through these lenses, an editor can flag where the writing feels too legalistic for the client ­– often a non-lawyer – to understand, or too verbose to publish on the firm’s website, or too aloof to attract a solicitor to apply for a secondment.

They also allow an editor to leave well alone when the words are working.

When tone of voice is right, content becomes relevant and meaningful, which means it will influence and persuade; wrong, and people will switch off.

Everyone writing for your brand needs one voice

How we put together the words we choose also matters.

Tone of voice guidelines can establish the type of language, words, expressions and phrases that will reinforce the brand, even the length and complexity of sentences and their rhythm.

But everyone writes differently. Multiple people writing for a singular brand bring multiple voices.

Annual reports are one of the most challenging multi-author publications to align. Written by dozens of contributors – marketing teams, accountants, lawyers, managers, engineers, executives or, worse, committees – the report must tell one coherent, coordinated story for the past year. With one voice.

Writing isn’t necessarily the day job for these contributors. And no tome encouraging writers away from cliché, passive construction, nominalisation and jargon, and towards inclusive language, active construction, clarity and plain English will keep that voice on track.

The skill of an editor is to shape their combined words to flow as one voice, call out the legalese and ‘corporatese’, and align their tone and rhythm.

The editor is the valued gatekeeper of this quality-control process – a process that can help preserve the integrity of the brand and, quite possibly, the sanity of the reader.

The voice tools already in your style guide

A style guide is the business end of that process, giving writers and editors the detail of how to present the brand voice.

Peppered throughout are clues to a brand’s personality and tone of voice – tools, or rules, that editors put into action every day, as part of their mission to weed out the errors and infelicities, and variances in punctuation, spelling and terminology, that so frustrate readers.

Because where correct grammar is non-negotiable, (consistent) style is – and here are some examples.

  • Do we use contractions (it’ll) or not (it will)?
  • Do we use first (we) or third (the company) person?
  • Do we prefer one variant spelling (while) over another (whilst)?
  • Do we choose stately (utilise) or conversational (use) words?
  • Do we capitalise ‘important’ words (the Members of the Executive Leadership Team) or keep it real (the leaders of our business)?
  • Do we use full points for titles and initials (Mr. J. R. Hartley) or not (JR Hartley)?
  • Do we use long (the 31st of March) dates or short (31 March)?

These simple choices can be the difference between a brand feeling formal and traditional or informal and modern, instructional or inviting a conversation. They help us present a unified brand – with a unified voice.

Make the most of an editor – and stay on brand

Now we know that an editor is more than a brilliant speller, here’s how to make the most of their skills and stay on brand.

An editor can:

  • keep the language and words you use aligned with the brand voice you choose
  • flag when tone of voice is off-brand – and sit on their hands when it’s spot on
  • shape multiple voices writing for a singular brand into one consistent brand voice
  • implement the detailed style choices that help a brand sound unified.

Have more sound ideas to add? Voice your thoughts in the comments.

More on how editors can help with business content

Six ways an editor can improve your business content by Mary McCauley

The CIEP guide, Your house style, outlines the value of a house style and reveals how to go about constructing such guidance if one doesn’t already exist.

About Louise Marsters

Louise Marsters edits communications and business content for corporate clients. Working in-house in corporate and financial communications taught Louise to shift her brand from ‘perfectionist’ to ‘pragmatic perfectionist’. Her colleagues even developed a strapline: Has it been Louise-d? Louise is a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading, and a member of the plain language organisation Clarity.

 

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: branded tins by Waldemar Brandt; microphone by Jason Rosewell; brand identity by Patrik Michalicka, all on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

The perfect partnership: the value of editing to an author

Working with an editor can be unlike any previous working relationship for a writer. In this article, Anna Cale explains how she has benefited from having her writing edited for magazines and a book.

As a freelance arts and culture writer, I think I am generally pretty good with words. But I also have to be professional. I always hit my word count, I submit my work to the agreed deadline and, importantly, I am open to feedback. Most of the time, anyway.

I am often too close to my work. I need someone else’s eye for detail, for spotting whether I have gone off track a little. I need a good editor. This is not something that comes easily, but I have always tried to remain open-minded and not too defensive. However, in my experience of writing articles, and then recently my first book, the role of an editor in the process has differed significantly.

Knowing your audience

When writing short-form articles for magazines, my interaction with an editor is quite limited. I pitch an idea in an email to the person who has the power (and budget) to commission. This is usually a hook that sums up the idea, with a short paragraph providing a little bit more detail of how the article would explore the idea. If the editor says yes, then we talk terms. Once the agreed article is written, it is sent to the editor for review, and you work together to form the final piece for publication.

You need to know the publication well before pitching an idea, identifying their style and what they usually commission, to have a chance of having your article idea accepted. It is a fast-paced and competitive environment, and there is some advantage to doing your research. This also really helps when it comes to the editing process, and hopefully shortens it considerably.

Sometimes you build a good working relationship with a particular commissioning editor, and that helps to make the process easier. You can start to second-guess what they want. But turnaround can often be quick, even for monthly magazines, and you don’t actually have much opportunity to build a connection. Both sides want the process to be as quick as possible.

Becoming a book author

When it came to writing my first book, however, the entire editing process was significantly different. My copyeditor was assigned to me by the publishers once I had submitted my final manuscript. I suspect this varies as each publishing company will work differently, but in my case that meant I had no interaction with an editor until that final stage, over a year after signing my contract to write 70,000 words.

I had done my research before putting together my original proposal for the publisher. Not just on the subject matter, but on the style of book the publishers usually release. I knew I would have to tailor my style a little to their audience, without compromising my own identity as a writer.

I was always going to be very protective of my book. It had been my baby for a long time. Friends had looked at drafts at various points, and my poor husband had read the entire thing twice. There was frustration along the way, as I realised just how much I use certain phrases (I’m looking at you, ‘of course’) or made the decision to alter sections significantly. I knew it was in a decent state at the point of submission, but I still didn’t feel prepared for editing and what that would entail. It was a complete mystery to me.

I was therefore rather apprehensive about the work involved in the editing process, but my editor guided me through it. Receiving a warm and friendly introductory email from her really helped, as she told me what the next steps would be. It felt like a fog had finally lifted. She was in control of the coordination of the various iterations of editing the manuscript, and I had confidence in her approach from the start. For me, as a debut writer, this feeling of trust was invaluable.

Working together

My experience of the editing process was a positive one. It felt like a constructive working relationship built on respect, with a balance of acceptance and compromise to reach a shared goal. We both had the same thing in mind – for me to produce the best book I possibly could.

It was about respecting each other’s knowledge. I was the subject matter expert on the topic, but my editor was the expert on how to present that idea for publication. Any spelling, punctuation, formatting or grammar changes she made were a given for me. I knew my editor would be bang on with that stuff, and I accepted those changes largely unchallenged. Anything more substantial was raised with questions or suggestions. I didn’t always accept those ideas, but did explore them within the context they were given to me.

It was a long process. We navigated the journey from rather long Word document to typeset PDF, with considered discussions over how best to present the appendices, the bibliography and filmography. The index was a pain, and I realised along the way that my grasp of the alphabet was not as hot as I had previously thought.

Respectful cooperation

For me, the main thing was consistent, open dialogue and communication. My editor clearly set out the process for me from the start, but I also felt empowered to approach her with questions or concerns. I finally had someone who was there to help me navigate this strange experience of writing a book when, during the previous months of researching and writing, that link had been sadly missing.

We had a shared willingness to understand each other. I did sometimes push back – our positive and understanding relationship gave me the confidence to do that. I did not feel uncomfortable or threatened by her input. I felt comfortable asking questions when I didn’t understand a comment, and equally, my editor seemed happy asking questions when she wasn’t sure about the subject matter or significance of something. We had respect for each other, the end result was something beautiful, and I feel we created it in partnership.

About Anna Cale

Anna Cale is an arts and culture writer who specialises in classic film and television. She has written for a number of publications and websites, including Little White Lies, Film Stories and the British Film Institute, and has also appeared on Radio 4.

Her writing subjects are wide-ranging, but she has an interest in British cinema of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and in particular, showcasing the role of strong female voices in film culture. Her first book, The Real Diana Dors, will be published on 30 July 2021 with White Owl, a Pen and Sword imprint.

 

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: writer’s desk by Nick Morrison; Together by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

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 copyediting 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 CIEP 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.

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 CIEP 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.

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

Ro, C (2019). How Linguists are using Urban Dictionary. Daily JSTOR. https://daily.jstor.org/how-linguists-are-using-urban-dictionary/


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.