Tag Archives: English

Editing outside your experience

The Radical Copyeditor, Alex Kapitan, recently spoke to PEN, the Professional Editors Network, members and guests about how to be a radical copyeditor when editing language that describes the experiences of those outside our own life experiences. Nicholas Taylor shares his takeaways from the event.

The Radical Copyeditor’s seven principles for editing text

The Radical Copyeditor, Alex Kapitan, spoke to PEN, the Professional Editors Network, members and guests about how to be a radical copyeditor when editing language that describes the experiences of those outside of our own life experiences.

Whether it’s race, sexuality, gender, disability, religion or faith, socio-economic background or any of the other many ways we describe ourselves, as editors, we are going to come across texts that describe people who don’t share the same backgrounds and experiences as ourselves. As editors, we are going to come across language that describes those experiences and we need to edit that with sensitivity and awareness.

Being an editor is not about sticking to a set of arbitrary rules, Alex reminds us. It is about being sensitive to language that describes people and affirms their lives and backgrounds, being aware of the rules, where they came from and figuring out which ones to apply, in context. As editorial professionals, we should be considering who those rules serve, where they came from and their impact on marginalised communities. As we know, language is always evolving and as professionals, we should be aware of changes in usage, terminology and trends.

Alex told us about the effects of an author’s choice of words. Language has the ability to:

  • dehumanise,
  • pathologise and
  • invisibilise.

Dehumanising language causes people to look the other way when its targets are suffering, completely othering groups and erasing their voices from the conversation.

Pathologising language stigmatises people who have different experiences. The language used can make people feel that they are ‘wrong’ simply for having those backgrounds or lives and that their lives need to be fixed.

Invisibilising language takes the experiences of people, whether through appropriation or erasure, communicating the idea that a group of people no longer exist. All three of these are particularly problematic and are something that editors should be looking out for.

As always, we are reminded that context matters, but our primary concern should be to avoid harm. Caring for the readers, writers and ourselves is important, Alex reminded us.

Alex took us through seven principles for editing text.

1. Be appropriately specific

Using specific language to describe people, rather than awkward or inaccurate generalisations, is going to be more inclusive. For example, describing ‘LGBTQ+ people’ is not helpful if you are trying to talk about ‘same-sex couples’.

2. Avoid euphemisms

Using euphemisms suggests that the right language is ‘wrong’ or something to be avoided.

3. Counter dehumanising language

Avoid using adjectives as nouns or equating people with a label or condition.

4. Respect self-identification

If people use a certain language, term or phrase to describe themselves, use this. You should not edit this language to make it ‘correct’ if it’s the language they use.

5. Use gender-inclusive language

More than just correcting fireman and postman, use non-sexist, neutral language. Singular ‘they’ works for both those who use this as a pronoun and for more general cases, replacing ‘he/she’ constructions.

6. Be mindful of metaphor

The idea of blackness and darkness vs whiteness and lightness is well-known, especially in fiction, but this language has the power to reinforce stereotypes.

Hands in darkness holding a candle

7. Challenge imperialism

Alex spoke about this from the perspective of someone from the US, but more widely, editors need to challenge the ideas of a collective ‘we’ approach. Who does that ‘we’ exclude when we talk about that?

There are opportunities to develop a more conscious approach to language at every stage of the editing process, from developmental editing right through to proofreading. Whether we are editorial freelancers or in-house editors, we have opportunities to ensure that language is inclusive. Publishers and presses have responsibilities, too, Alex reminds us.

At the heart of this approach is care: care for the reader, the writer and for the editor. The focus should not be on avoiding ‘offence’ or ‘getting into trouble’ but on not causing harm. When we edit, particularly language and topics that fall outside of our own experiences as individuals, we need to be tuned in to the potential to cause harm.

Using conscious language requires a lifetime commitment. It isn’t going to happen overnight and we may find that it feels awkward or clumsy at first. But language is important and we should take the time to learn from others who have experiences outside of our own to fully understand how language works for them.


The CIEP produces resources to help editors and proofreaders. These EDI resources include:

Read about where the CIEP stands on EDI 


About Nicholas Taylor

Nicholas Taylor (he/him) is an editor, proofreader and occasional writer. He specialises in working with LGBTQ+ texts, both fiction and non-fiction, and works to make text more inclusive for the whole LGBTQ+ community. He is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP.

 

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: hands by Anete Lusina on Pexels, candle by Myriams-Fotos on Pixaby.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – title case

Capitals for some words, lowercase for others, and what exactly is a preposition anyway? Cathy Tingle tries to navigate the nuances of title case in headings, and in the process discovers the importance of editorial judgement.

At the end of October 2021’s A Finer Point we were running breathlessly away from the surprisingly complicated zone of sentence case, with its proper noun, identity and emphasis landmarks, towards what we were hoping would be the more straightforward domain of title case. And, four months later, we’re finally here (quite a long run, that). Let’s take a look around.

Getting our bearings

It’s tricky to know what to call this place, as it has many names: maximal capitalisation, initial caps, title case, headline style, smart capitals.

Ah, well. Even if we can’t settle on a label, it should be fairly easy to identify the characteristics of the style. Let’s consult good old New Hart’s Rules on what it calls ‘maximal capitalization’. It says to capitalise ‘the first letter of the first word and of all other important words’. Hang on a minute – what does ‘important’ even mean? Don’t panic: Hart’s has a list.

Nouns, adjectives (other than possessives), and verbs are usually given capitals; pronouns and adverbs may or may not be capitalized; articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are usually left uncapitalized.

Oh. That’s two usuallys and a may or may not. Which suggests very strongly to me, friends, that where we are, in fact, is in the vast realm of editorial judgement.

How can we possibly hope to get our bearings, then, when it comes to title case? Well, let’s start by hanging on to something that at least appears solid by trying to identify what’s never capitalised – or pretty much never.

What not to capitalise

Right then, in general, unless they are the first word in the title don’t capitalise the following word types:

  • Articles: a, an, the.
  • Conjunctions: joining words, for example and, or, but, for, so.
  • Prepositions: words that express a relation to something, for example on, off, of, to, by.

Sounds simple. But actually it’s not. It’s with prepositions in particular that we run into difficulty, because they’re not all nice and short like the ones listed above. Some, like beneath, between, against, around, towards and within are much longer, and would look odd uncapitalised. Which is partly why some style guides have a rule that all words of four letters and longer should be capitalised. For others it’s five letters or longer. Chicago style, bravely (or perhaps with a certain unfussy genius) advises lowercase for all prepositions, regardless of length. Let’s see what Benjamin Dreyer, in Dreyer’s English, has to say about that:

If you say ‘prepositions are invariably to be lowercased’, as some indeed say, you’re going to be up against titles like Seven against Thebes or I Served alongside Rommel, and that certainly won’t do. The cleverer people endorse lowercasing the shorter prepositions, of which there are many, including ‘at’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘of’, ‘to’, and ‘with’, and capping the longer ones, like ‘despite’, ‘during’, and ‘towards’. I’ll admit that the four-letter prepositions can cause puzzlement – I’d certainly never cap ‘with’, but a lowercase ‘over’ can look a little under-respected.

Ah, sometimes capping a four-letter preposition, and sometimes not. Interesting and confusing at once.

But – and it’s a big but

To add to the intrigue, Dreyer then addresses but. I’ve listed it in the previous section as a conjunction, but, unfortunately for us, it is so much more. In fact, but is:

  • a conjunction (‘Yes, but no’)
  • a preposition (‘Everyone was using sentence case but me’)
  • an adverb (‘We are but four sections from the end of the article, so hang in there’)
  • or a noun (‘But – and it’s a big but’, although that phrase always makes my 9-year-old son chortle, as if the second but, the noun, is furnished with an extra t. (Eye roll.) If you’d prefer a less snigger-triggering example, Dreyer gives ‘no ifs or buts about it’.)

But is only one of many words that fit into various word-type categories. There are also, as Dreyer points out, such things as phrasal verbs, which are likely to contain a word you’d usually lowercase (‘Oh, Come On!’ we might shout back exasperatedly, if it were possible to shout in title case).

What to capitalise

Before we bid farewell to Benjamin Dreyer for now, we must note that he would always capitalise the last word, as well as the first word, of a heading in title case, as would Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, authors of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, which contains an excellent section on headline style. Predictably, this isn’t a universal rule.

However, capitalising nouns, adjectives and verbs in title case is pretty much a sure thing. As this should be fairly self-explanatory it’s only left to me to remind you that ‘be’ and ‘is’, though small words, are verbs and should always be capitalised … ah, unless in exceptional cases, such as those outlined in a recent CMOS Shop Talk article which explored whether ‘Is’ should always be capitalised in titles, or to conform to a style decision not to capitalise forms of the verb ‘to be’, a feature of Intelligent Editing’s Smart Capitals style.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a headache.

Books on a bookshelf

What else now?

Stuck in the middle, according to Hart’s at least, are pronouns and adverbs, the may or may nots of a title. So, just a reminder of what they are:

  • Pronouns are stand-in words and phrases for a name or names, from they to Her Majesty (which is actually capitalised for quite another reason, but you get the idea). Some are short enough to seem unimportant: he, it, but in general they are capitalised.
  • Adverbs answer questions such as ‘how?’ ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. They modify verbs, adjectives, prepositions, determiners, other adverbs, and sometimes whole clauses and sentences. Examples are happily, then and quite. Adverbs generally have at least four letters but the two-letter as can also be an adverb, as in ‘title case is different from sentence case, and just as annoying’.

Why might we not capitalise these words? One reason might be aesthetics. We’ll consider this in a minute, but first let’s look at colons and hyphens.

Capitalising after colons and hyphens

Say you’re applying maximal capitalisation style to a title and there’s a colon, and after it is an article. What do you do then? In many styles you’d capitalise whatever word follows a colon, even if it’s a word that you wouldn’t usually capitalise:

Title Case: A Miserable Exploration

So there’s one more complication for you. Sorry.

How should we treat text after a hyphen? Many of us are used to seeing that lowercase e after the hyphen in the title of Butcher’s Copy-editing (last published in 2006), and reflecting that it must be like that for a reason and therefore maybe we’d better do the same, although some of us have closed up the hyphen in ‘copy-editing’ in our own communications (because of this exact issue? Er, maybe) so we don’t have to make this decision any longer. However, it’s worth remembering that even though Butcher’s is a titan in its field, it’s still produced within a house style, and house style should always be your first port of call for such decisions. But if it doesn’t cover this point? Hart’s says:

When a title or heading is given initial capitals, a decision needs to be made as to how to treat hyphenated compounds. The traditional rule is to capitalize only the first element unless the second element is a proper noun or other word that would normally be capitalized … In many modern styles, however, both elements are capitalized.

You could imagine this working with ‘Copy-Editing’, as both parts of this compound can stand alone as words, but what about when there’s a prefix before the hyphen, such as ‘Re-’, ‘Ex-’ and ‘Co-’? In a recent discussion on the CIEP forums Sue Littleford gave an alternative to modern-style capping: ‘The guidance I usually follow … is to cap the second part if the first part can stand alone, and if not, not.’

The final judgement

Say we’ve capitalised our nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns and adverbs, and lowercased our articles, conjunctions and prepositions, and we’ve made any necessary exceptions according to our style guide. What’s the final arbiter for decision making about capitals? In the end, both Hart’s and Dreyer defer to how things look. Dreyer talks of the ‘visual euphony’ that might influence a decision to capitalise (or not), and this is what Hart’s says:

Exactly which words should be capitalized in a particular title is a matter for individual judgement, which may take account of the sense, emphasis, structure, and length of the title. Thus a short title may look best with capitals on words that might be left lower case in a longer title.

To retain some semblance of consistency, review your titles against each other in a list, which you can do in Word (left-hand navigation pane) or simply by copying and pasting them into a separate document and studying them hard. Then try your best to articulate the basis of your decisions on the style sheet for those who follow you in the process. Doing this will help you, too.

If you’re working in a US style, a miraculous link was posted on the CIEP forums a few weeks ago that can act a good basic guide to capitalising in title case (particularly after hyphenation), though, like everything to do with title case it seems, it shouldn’t be seen as absolutely conclusive. But that might be a good thing. In an increasingly automated arena, assessing the nuances of capitalisation could be one of the final areas that will stay firmly within the realm of editorial judgement.

Resources

CMOS Shop Talk. ‘Is “Is” Always Capitalized in Titles?’, https://cmosshoptalk.com/2021/08/24/is-is-always-capitalized-in-titles/

Benjamin Dreyer (2019), Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Penguin Random House UK, pp. 248–51.

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019), The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications. University of California Press, pp. 185–7.

Intelligent Editing, ‘Capitalization of Headings’, https://intelligentediting.com/docs/perfect-it/understanding-perfect-its-checks/capitalization-of-headings.html

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; section 8.2.3

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle holds the variously capitalised titles of CIEP Advanced Professional Member, copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.

 

 

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: bookshelf 1 by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash, bookshelf 2 by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

5 ways English usage has changed since 2000

Anyone who’s stumbled on unfamiliar terms in a Shakespeare play knows that English vocabulary has changed over the centuries. But what about over the last couple of decades? When we use language every day, it’s easy to miss the subtle changes that are taking place over time. Rosie Tate takes a step back to look at five ways in which English vocabulary has changed since the turn of the century.

1. Tech talk

Our lives have drastically changed with the rise of technology – and the English language has followed suit. The need to name new inventions and concepts has given us memes, hashtags, cryptocurrencies, blogs, vlogs, tweets, paywalls and much more. The word ‘selfie’ (which feels to me like it’s been with us forever) was first used by an Australian in 2002 – and only went into the OED as a new word in 2013, beating ‘twerking’ and ‘bitcoin’ as word of the year.

Technology has changed the meaning of some words – like ‘catfish’, which used to refer only to a fish but is now also used to describe someone who fakes their online identity for fraudulent purposes. Some old words are used differently – like the noun ‘friend’, which is now also used as a verb (to friend/unfriend someone on social media). And words that started off in written form as abbreviations – like LOL and FOMO – have now made their way into our spoken language.

2. Words to describe the climate crisis

Although terms related to climate change – ecocide, global warming, greenhouse effect, extreme weather, eco-warrior – existed before 2000, their use has sharply risen this century as environmental crises have multiplied. Some newspapers have actively decided to change the language they use to report these stories. The Guardian, for instance, changed its house style in 2019 to reflect the urgency of the crisis, favouring ‘climate crisis or emergency’ over the more neutral ‘climate change’, and ‘global heating’ over ‘global warming’.

New words have also appeared. We’ve all heard of ‘microplastics’, the plastic debris that gets washed into our oceans and causes damage to wildlife. We can also now label our fear of environmental doom (‘eco-anxiety’) and have a word for those who deny anything of concern is happening (‘climate denier’).

3. Coronavirus (vocabulary) is everywhere

In just a couple of years, the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed our ways of living – and our language has adapted accordingly. Words that we rarely used before 2020 – quarantine, self-isolate, social distancing, lockdown, key workers, furlough, PPE – have become commonplace. By April 2020, ‘coronavirus’ was one of the most commonly used words in the English language – its usage even surpassing that of the word ‘time’, according to the OED.

But as well as technical and medical terms, the pandemic also gave rise to linguistic creativity. New words were invented to make sense of what we were going through and to inject some fun into difficult situations – like ‘quarantini’ (a cocktail you drink while in quarantine) or ‘blursday’ (a day in the week that feels the same as the day before).

4. Lost words

As well as new words being added to our repertoire, others are falling into disuse. Dictionaries regularly cut words out to make space for new ones. Collins Dictionary has dropped words like alienism, bever, brabble, charabanc and frigorific from its smaller print dictionaries, a decision that reflects how little these words are used. Let’s face it, when was the last time you used the word ‘brabble’ (which means ‘to argue’)?

More worryingly, though, was the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to remove 50 words connected to nature in 2007. It caused public outrage, though not until 2015 (when someone finally noticed). Words such as ‘acorn’, ‘bluebell’, ‘dandelion’, ‘ivy’ and ‘willow’ were cut, while words like ‘broadband’ and ‘blog’ were added. The word ‘blackberry’ (referring to the edible berry) was out, while the Blackberry (mobile phone) was in. This points to a shift in our lifestyles – more tech, less nature – but it begs the question: are we losing the ability to label the natural world around us? Are we more likely to use the general word ‘tree’ than to recognise an oak, cedar or willow tree? (If you do feel the need to reconnect to the natural world, I strongly recommend Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass as an antidote.)

5. We’re (a bit) more inclusive

Individuals are demanding that language be fairer – it shouldn’t exclude groups based on age, race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Many organisations and brands have taken this on board by using inclusive terms – gender-neutral pronouns, for instance – and encouraging their staff to use pronouns in their email signatures. There’s been a lot more media coverage on the topic, though it is of course still contentious – should we use the word ‘guys’ to include women? Do we all use ableist language without realising? Although we have a long way to go when it comes to using inclusive language, there’s growing awareness of it – and that’s more than can be said for the 20th century.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list. We know that the English language is constantly evolving, uncontainable and used by each of us in a unique way. If you have noticed changes in how you or others have used English in recent years, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


The CIEP is working to embed equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) across everything we do. We aim to foster an environment where all members feel safe and equally able to contribute to CIEP activities.

Explore our EDI resources


About Rosie Tate

Rosie Tate is co-founder of Tate & Clayburn, a London-based company that offers copyediting, proofreading, copywriting and translation services to clients worldwide. A first-class Oxford University languages graduate with an MA in Documentary Filmmaking, she’s an experienced editor, writer and producer, having worked for Oxford University Press, the BBC and Save the Children.

 

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: selfie stick by Steve Gale; dandelion by Saad Chaudhry, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP information director.

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

How can corpora help editors and proofreaders?

How often have you needed another word for a common term or phrase to avoid repetition? You can turn to a thesaurus, but there is a much more comprehensive source of inspiration accessible online. Ana Frankenberg-Garcia explains.

To make texts accurate and readable, we are required to evaluate other people’s words and wordings. However, people express themselves in different ways, and it is not always straightforward to tell whether documents need to be changed or how they can be improved. This is especially true when the subject matter, terminology or style of the text at hand is not entirely familiar. Dictionaries, glossaries, style guides and online searches can help, but not always. That is when we turn to more experienced colleagues. But what if they too don’t know the answer? What if they give us conflicting responses? What if it is late at night and we have an early morning deadline? Don’t worry, a corpus can help, and can often help more than any other source you have used before.

What is a corpus?

A corpus is a collection of authentic, machine-readable texts sampled to be representative of the language or language variety we wish to focus on. For example, a corpus consisting of a large number of business letters written by business people going about their normal routine can help us observe how words are objectively used in business correspondence.

How can corpora help?

Imagine you are not sure whether a business email should end in I look forward to hearing from you or I am looking forward to hearing from you. A corpus such as Professor Yasumasa Someya’s free Business Letter Corpus, with one million words of UK and US business letters, will do the trick. Compare the search results for looking forward and look forward.

First, you can see that look forward, with 997 occurrences, is more conventional in business letters than looking forward, with only 161 hits. Note that this is just in UK and US business letters, not the entire internet, so you know exactly where your results are coming from. Next, you can see that corpus software aligns the expression searched in the centre of your screen, which means you just need to scroll down to inspect every single occurrence of it. Reading ‘vertically’ makes finding out how words are used in context much faster and easier than reading linearly, as we normally do. And indeed, if you observe the context of how these wordings are employed, you will notice that looking forward tends to occur in more informal circumstances (eg fun night, great show, long chat), whereas look forward is used more formally (eg favourable reply, challenging career, future opportunity).

Another thing that corpus software does is help you to find out, in seconds, how words are used together.

Imagine you have a blank and can’t think of a verb to go with opinion. If you run a search for opinion in the enTenTen corpus (with 38 billion words of current English), you will not only be able to scroll down results like the ones shown above, where you can spot verbs like give, sway and form, but you can also carry out a further search step where the software automatically counts, ranks and sorts all the words that occur, say, four words to the left of opinion. This will generate a list of words frequently co-occurring with opinion, which you can scroll down and notice verbs like express, voice and share (see right).

Or, even better, you can sort this list to zoom in on just the verbs that occur in the context of opinion (see far right). There is no space here for more examples, but there are countless other ways in which corpora can help editors and proofreaders.

How can editors and proofreaders access corpora?

Until a few years ago corpora were only accessible to researchers, but nowadays anyone with access to the internet can consult one. A good place to start is the no-frills, free, online SkELL (Sketch Engine for Language Learning) corpus. The British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English can also be accessed free of charge. If you want more English corpora, and corpora in many different languages, the incredibly powerful Sketch Engine tool used by big dictionary makers is available for a modest subscription fee.

Anyone who works professionally with language can benefit from corpora. Corpora are, after all, where lexicographers and linguists get the raw material they need to compile dictionaries and other language resources in the first place. Although corpora don’t provide us with black-and-white answers, they do give us access to how words are used in the real world, in ways that allow us to draw our own conclusions. Even when it is late at night and we have an early morning deadline!


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Editing Matters. CIEP members can access the Editing Matters archive.


About Ana Frankenberg-Garcia

Ana Frankenberg-Garcia is the programme leader of the MA in Translation, University of Surrey. Her research focuses on applied uses of corpora in translation, lexicography and language learning.

 

 

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 credit: letters by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

 

 

The 2021 CIEP conference: Benjamin Dreyer in conversation with Denise Cowle

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Cathy Tingle reviewed Benjamin Dreyer in conversation with Denise Cowle.

The plenary session of this year’s CIEP conference was particularly eagerly anticipated by those of us who enjoy Benjamin Dreyer’s expertly crafted Twitter posts and devoured his fun yet bracing book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Benjamin Dreyer has a way with words, and in this short talk and longer interview with Denise Cowle, the CIEP’s marketing and PR director, he didn’t disappoint – even over a jumpy connection which added to the feeling that he really was speaking to us live from New York.

Like many of us, Benjamin Dreyer came to editing after trying other things. Following a casual-sounding introduction to the production editor of St Martin’s Press by a writer friend who spotted his talent, he was given some freelance proofreading work. It became an apprenticeship in copyediting. In those days, editing was done on hard copy. ‘I was seeing what sort of questions copyeditors asked. I saw there was more to this than “let me fix your spelling and let me see your subjects and verbs agree”.’ Asked by Denise whether he would tell new editors to start out by proofreading, Benjamin advised: ‘You should get your feet wet doing proofreading. It’s a lower-risk job, for us and for you. It’s one of the best ways to really learn how the editing works, to really see what the copyeditor does.’

Moving on to employment at Random House, Benjamin worked among some of the leading lights of editing including Bob Loomis who had been there such a long time that he remembered Faulkner visiting the office.

Random House has no house style: ‘Every book has to be approached on its own terms, with fresh eyes, with a fresh brain, to try to make the book into the best possible version of itself that it can be.’ This has been the mission of Benjamin Dreyer’s working life. He tells new editors: ‘Read the first 25 or 30 pages of a manuscript with your hands behind your back. Pay attention to what’s going on before you start working on it.’

As Random House’s copy chief, Benjamin famously only has one copyediting client these days: Elizabeth Strout, author of the Olive Kitteridge books, an arrangement that came about after Benjamin walked into her then editor’s office and pronounced her latest book ‘remarkable’. How did he find the experience of being edited when Dreyer’s English was in production? He asked for a particular copyeditor, much as Elizabeth Strout did with him, and described his editor’s method, of providing him with a better version of his own text, as ‘wonderful’. ‘You sound more like I sound than I sound’, he would say to her: a standard of editing for us all to aspire to.

You can’t interview Benjamin Dreyer without asking certain questions, and Denise did this expertly. One was about his outspoken disapproval of those who eschew the series (or serial, or Oxford) comma. I held my breath. But Benjamin protested a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek mischief, and explained: ‘There has to be this balance of truly, earnestly wanting to help and to get them to laugh, to pay attention.’ And so a stooshie – a great Scottish word that Denise used and Benjamin wrote down for future use – was avoided.

Right at the end of the interview – if there had been credits they would have been rolling – Denise posed the question suggested by Louise Bolotin but that we all wanted answered: ‘Why when Random House merged with Penguin was the new company not called Random Penguin?’ We weren’t the first to ask, it seems: ‘Everybody wanted and prayed that Random Penguin would be the way. People designed rogue logos. But we ended up being Penguin Random House. And that’s OK too.’

And then it was over, and so was the conference, and after we’d mopped ourselves up following CIEP chair Hugh Jackson’s closing remarks, those of us who tweet headed back to Twitter where we found a lovely message from Mr Dreyer: ‘I just had a spectacular time talking to the wonderful folk at @The_CIEP, and we didn’t come to cross-cultural blows! #CIEP2021.’ Utterly correct.

Cathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. She is a non-fiction copyeditor and proofreader, runs copyediting training for Publishing Scotland and is a member of the CIEP information team.

You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

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:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

The 2021 CIEP conference: Easy English

This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Anna Baildon reviewed Easy English: The principles of writing for people with low literacy and what editorial professionals can learn from them, presented by Cathy Basterfield.

What is Easy English?

One of the reasons I attended this interesting session is that Easy English is a new concept for me.

Cathy described Easy English as ‘writing for people who haven’t got functional literacy’. She showed us examples of Easy English documents which made it clear that this is the polar opposite of the writing styles we often work with as editorial professionals. But Cathy emphasised the myriad texts which we encounter in our daily lives and which are inaccessible to many people.

Cathy has many years’ experience in speech pathology and working with people who use non-verbal communication. Our chair, Hugh Jackson, noted that Cathy pioneered the development of Easy English, so we were in good hands. Delegates contributed some thought-provoking questions, most of which Cathy answered in the time available.

Why do people need Easy English?

Easy English caters for people with the lowest levels of literacy. This may be related to a disability or other reasons. It was sobering to consider the impact of being unable to access information that I take for granted – Cathy mentioned the significant health, social and economic consequences – and to see data showing that a surprisingly large proportion of adults do not have the literacy to manage day-to-day tasks.

Easy English is most commonly used for information that people need, such as health information or terms and agreements. (I learned that there is an accessible information standard that all NHS and adult social care providers in England are legally required to follow.) Easy English is generally not used for the cultural, leisure and news content which people with higher literacy read for pleasure and engagement reasons. Cathy said that research shows that people with low literacy do want to read these richer types of material. This demonstrates an even greater potential for applying Easy English approaches.

One very interesting point Cathy made was that Easy English can be effective for people with higher literacy levels. She gave an example of a document about court proceedings that was useful to someone at an intensely stressful and emotional time.

Some nuts and bolts

Cathy used example texts to demonstrate some Easy English techniques. We learned that we should use:

  • a lot of white space
  • directly relevant illustrations (not photographs) to help convey the meaning of the text
  • short words and sentences
  • minimal punctuation
  • positive phrasing
  • bullets to separate items in a list.

I liked the idea of ‘unpacking the language’ so that the meaning becomes accessible.

Headlines I’ll remember

  • It’s hard to write in Easy English!
  • Access to written information should not be a reading test. It should be enabling.
  • Access to information is a right. ‘Access’ means that a person reads, understands and knows what they can do.

I agree with conference organiser Beth Hamer that Cathy gave us ‘a different perspective’ and challenged our assumptions. I can see that Easy English is related to plain English and Easy Read, but that it goes further. I would like to explore these specialisms after I’ve completed my core training. In the meantime, it will be interesting to spot opportunities where I can use the principles in more subtle ways in my work.

Thank you to Cathy, who joined us live from Melbourne where it was late evening.


Useful resources

Cathy’s website: https://accesseasyenglish.com.au

CIEP guide: Editing into Plain English https://www.ciep.uk/resources/guides/#EPL

CIEP training course: Plain English for Editors https://www.ciep.uk/training/choose-a-course/plain-english-editors/


Anna Baildon is an Entry-Level Member and is relishing CIEP training to strengthen her expertise. She has worked in niche librarian roles in higher education and has significant experience in wrangling non-fiction copy into a publishable state. Anna has degrees in English literature and librarianship and a lifelong affinity with words. She plans to freelance, offering both copyediting and proofreading services.

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:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

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.

‘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.

Grab your thongs and the esky, we’re off to the (Australian English) beach!

By Tim Curnow

Following on from Lynne Murphy’s recent focus paper about global Englishes, the CIEP information team asked if I’d write a piece about my native variety, Australian English. Of course, Australian English is spoken by around 25 million people over a huge area, and there are some small regional differences, but much less than with UK English. Most of the differences are simply a handful of different words, and it’s generally impossible for one Australian to tell which part of Australia another speaker is from just from their accent, though there are potentially one or two subtle signals: for example, if someone talks about Malbourne [æ] rather than Melbourne [e], they’re likely to be from Victoria; but many Victorians say Melbourne in any case. Leaving aside pronunciation, though, what is written Australian English like, and what sources would an editor use to copyedit it?

UK- or US-focused?

The conventions of Australian English tend to be UK-based rather than US-based, although this is perhaps gradually changing. So spellings such as centre, theatre and defence are usual, and you would normally find traveller rather than traveler. Equally, in cases where there is no single UK English convention, the same is true of Australian English: for example, the verb suffix is more likely to be -ise (and this is required by the Australian Government’s Style Manual and is given first in the Macquarie Dictionary), but -ize is also common.

There are some peculiarities. One of the most notable relates to -our versus -or. The standard convention in Australian English follows UK English, with -our, although one of the major newspapers, The Age, used -or until the 1990s (when, I suspect, stories began to be more commonly written for several newspapers with the same owner, requiring consistency across different newspapers). However, for historical reasons that no one is entirely certain of, one of the two largest political parties in Australia is the Australian Labor Party, with no u. (The other large party is called the Liberal Party of Australia, although it is the equivalent of the UK Conservative Party; this leads to Australians talking about small-l liberal values when they need to make it clear they don’t mean conservative ones.)

Then there’s program(me). Leaving aside computer programs, and simplifying the story, the spelling program became usual in government documents by the 1980s. Following that, the word became a political football, with a more conservative prime minister insisting on the government having programmes, then with a change of government there were programs again, then programmes, and now things seem to have settled back with programs. This means that if you want to find out, for example, about the Australian Government Reef Programme, you need to consult the website of the National Landcare Program. For a while there, you could tell someone’s political leanings on the basis of their spelling …

Australian words

Apart from pronunciation, the most obvious differences between UK and Australian English relate to vocabulary items. Of course, there are the names of animals and plants found only in Australia, but authors and editors are much more likely to trip up on concepts which are shared but where there are different words to refer to them, particularly when the same words are used with different meanings in the two varieties: the fact that an Australian can be entirely respectable when dressed in nothing but a T-shirt, pants and thongs sometimes amuses the British, for example, although why being dressed in a T-shirt, trousers and flip-flops should be amusing, I don’t know.

One minefield for authors and editors relates to words used in reference to the Indigenous peoples of Australia: as you might expect, there have been changes over time and it is a vexed issue. Probably the earliest modern position was that represented by the 1988 version of the Australian Government’s Style Manual, which recommended Aboriginal as the adjective but Aborigine(s) for the noun to refer to Indigenous Australians; but some people preferred Aboriginal(s) as the noun, on the basis that this was simply saying something about the person in question, rather than categorising them. This debate continues, and it is often avoided in practice by ensuring that the word always modifies some other noun. However, there are also entirely separate groups of Indigenous Melanesian people on Australian territory, the various Torres Strait Islander peoples, who historically were often mistakenly referred to using the term Aborigines. By the time of the development of the (now disbanded) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990, it had become common to explicitly link the two sets of groups, especially in more official contexts; and health or census forms commonly ask ‘Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?’ The term Indigenous Australians is relatively neutral, but some Indigenous people consider that this is an external, bureaucratic, imposed label, and prefer to refer to themselves as First Australians or First Nations Australians; many will often also use the term Black, although because of its history, that can be considered offensive if used by non-Indigenous people to refer to Indigenous Australians.

In fact, before the European settlement of Australia, there were over 250 groups of Aboriginal peoples, and there are 14 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait, so the search for a general term is often a little like trying to decide whether Asians would be the appropriate term to use when introducing a woman from Indonesia together with a man from Israel. Modern usage is generally to follow the preference of any individual, and otherwise to use the most specific possible term: a Pitjantjatjara man, one of the Kaurna people. To complicate matters, there are also approximately state-based terms used by many Indigenous people themselves (and by others), such as Koori for an Aboriginal Australian from Victoria or New South Wales, or Murri for an Aboriginal Australian from Queensland or northwestern New South Wales. (See the Style Guide for a more in-depth discussion.)

More subtle differences

While complex, all of the issues above are relatively easy to notice, if sometimes hard to resolve. Trickier for an editor are the more subtle differences between Australian English and UK English.

Some of these differences stem from geography and social history. I’m still always startled when in the UK I’m told someone is Asian, and then they invariably turn out not to be from China, Thailand or Vietnam, the default meaning of Asia in Australian English (like in US English); and while Australia has one of the most urbanised populations in the world, there is a strong cultural attachment to the bush and the outback, words that tend not to be used in the way non-Australians think.

The outback, not the bush. The view from Chambers Pillar, a sandstone formation near (ie 100 miles away from) Alice Springs.

Australians also think of distances in a different way from Britons, and the realities of travel in an often highly mobile population add to this. Not everyone in Australia has my experience while growing up of alternate holidays consisting of driving north for 10 hours to visit my paternal grandparents or west for 13 hours to visit my maternal grandparents, but it’s not considered particularly unusual (and in each case, isn’t even a third of the way across the country). So Australians are entertained by my anecdote about queuing behind a woman at Sainsbury’s who was justifying buying two packets of lollies (well, she was English not Australian, so she said sweets) because she had to keep the children happy during a ‘long’ drive the next day; it turned out she was going slightly less than two hours away.

Then there are those subtle differences that are inexplicable, and sometimes almost unexplainable. In both Australian and UK English, collective nouns such as committee and government can come with singular or plural verb agreement; but as an Australian, I often hear the singular used in UK English where I would be expecting the plural. And plural nouns are more commonly used in the UK pre-modifying other nouns: you wouldn’t expect a charity to be called the Cats Protection League in Australia; instead, you have the Cat Protection Society of NSW.

Style guides and dictionaries

Just like in the UK, there is no overall authority on what formal Australian English writing should look like. The most widely known style guide is the Style Manual, originally published in 1966, which has gone through a number of editions, with changing recommendations. The manual is only intended for publications written by public servants (civil servants) who work for what more recent editions refer to as the Australian Government, but earlier ones refer to as the Commonwealth Government; the manual is not even used (explicitly) by the governments of the different states and territories. The online beta version of the 7th edition is currently getting quite a lot of publicity (including on the CIEP forum!), with one of most controversial suggestions being that one should ‘generally write numerals for 2 and above’. This reflects the fact that this recent edition takes an explicit ‘digital-first approach’, with many of the suggestions based on readability guidelines that were developed specifically for web-based content.

As an alternative, there is also the Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage (previously the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide), written by Pam Peters. However, this is very much more like Fowler’s, with an alphabetical listing of points you may wish to be aware of, and which might be debatable, rather than a style to follow.

Through much of the 20th century, there were ‘Australianised’ editions of major UK dictionaries, particularly the smaller versions, and these still exist (eg the 6th edition of the Australian School Oxford Dictionary appeared in 2016). However, in 1981 the first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary appeared, the name relating to the fact that the editorial committee for the original edition consisted largely of staff from Macquarie University. This dictionary, now in its 7th edition and with various different versions (eg the Macquarie Concise Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary Online), is now generally accepted as ‘the’ dictionary of Australian English. The larger versions contain encyclopaedic entries, including the names of many famous people and places relating to Australia.

There is also the Australian National Dictionary, originally published in 1998, part of the Oxford University Press line-up of Australian dictionaries. However, it is not a generalist dictionary, but rather one that focuses more specifically on Australianisms, with words either used only in Australia or with particular Australian-related meanings.

Antipodean English?

People sometimes talk of Australasian English or Antipodean English, and there are similarities between Australian English and New Zealand English. Both are UK-focused in stylistic terms – NZ English probably more so than Australian English – and there are some words used in the two varieties and not in other Englishes. But each has its own peculiarities: possibly most famously, Australians wonder why New Zealanders call an esky a chilly bin, and NZers wonder why Australians call a chilly bin an esky, while the rest of the world wonders what on earth we’re on about (a cooler or cool box). There are also differences relating to the historical presence of only a single Indigenous language, Māori, on the main islands of NZ/Aotearoa, and the declaring of this language as a national language in 1987. But we’d need an editor from NZ to elaborate on this, whether they were Māori, Pasifika (with ancestors from other Pacific islands), Pākehā (of European descent) or other – anyone out there willing to take it on?

Tim Curnow grew up in Canberra (apart from a year in Ecuador, a year in Colombia and a year backpacking around Europe), then worked as a linguist and applied linguist at universities in Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. Then he moved to Royal Leamington Spa in the middle of England and started TJC Editing so that he could copyedit other people’s academic work instead of having to write his own.