Friday, March 04, 2005

English, The Language That Grates and Burns

I belong to a writers' group that includes people from all over the world. The US, the UK, Europe, Australia. And I cannot tell you how many debates and discussions we all have had over the differences between our various forms of English.

I'm not talking the normal word differences here. The US "diapers" known in the UK as "nappies" or the word "fanny" meaning butt in the US and something entirely less innocuous in the UK. We actually have fun with those kind of differences, having some good laughs along the way. In fact, we get downright slap-happy when one of us Americans writes John put his pants on and left the house. since it gives the non-Americans images of poor John walking down the street in his underwear, having left his trousers in the closet.

I'm talking about the way we structure sentences and the phrases we use, the inclusion of modifiers and prepositions and the use of punctuation above and beyond the eternal War of the Comma. Stuff that we were all taught in elementary and high school grammar classes that we believed were laws written somewhere in stone and, more importantly, we all assumed were universally accepted across the entire spectrum of spoken and written English. What I learned sitting in Mrs. Poe's freshman English class would be the same thing my friend Anne learned sitting some 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in her London classroom. She might call an elevator a lift, but she'd still say "Please get inside of the lift." (According to many of my UK friends, that "of" is not necessary: the correct form is "Please get inside the lift.") In fact, if I assumed that darling Anne would of course put a period after the "Mrs" in Mrs. Poe, I'd actually be wrong as I understand the period is now entirely optional on the eastern side of the Big Pond. Believe me, I can't tell you how many times I've blinked twice when seeing Mr Jones and Mrs Smith without those important periods! Something is just missing.

Usually it begins when one of us puts a bit of story out there and receives feedback telling us some particular phrase is wrong or that a sentence has an un-necessary word. The latest discussion has evolved out of the bizarre tendency some of us (US) writers have of using the phrase "If you think that, you have another thing coming!" which I have recently learned is completely incorrect in that it should be " have another think coming." And yes, I can clearly see why the second version is correct and have no idea why or how I learned the first, but it is now so ingrained in my brain I'll never be able to use it properly without cringing.

Anyway, stuff like this tends to bring out the closet pedants in us, and then we spend days trying to determine which version is right and which is wrong. I'll admit to a tendency towards both intimidation and obstinance when my choice of wording is questioned. Intimidation because my very own relatives hale from the UK, a place I consider the birthing ground of the English language, therefore it would seem only right that the UK version in any given situation must be the correct one. Obstinance because, hey, this is not your daddy's English, sweetheart. We're our own nation with our own television shows and our own publishers of fine (and not so fine) literature, so therefore we can say things any old damn way we want. Well, I'm not quite that obnoxious, but there is that moment when I realize that I'm not necessarily wrong simply because my country is only 230 years old so is the relative newbie on the block.

That's where we usually end up. We all agree to disagree and chalk it up to the wonderful paradox and confusion that is the language English. Going forward we all try really hard to just skip over those funny foreign idiosyncrasies that seem oh so wrong to us but seem oh so right to others.

But it does bring about a question that is worth asking. When I read something written by a UK friend for what she assumes will be UK audience, the writing is full of UK English-isms that sometimes pull me out of a story simply because they are unfamiliar to me. Since I am not her target audience, per se, it's easy enough to ignore. However, do editors and agents have the same concern? If a UK writer sends a manuscript to a US publisher (and vice versa), will it be rejected because the wording is slightly different? I would surely hope not, since the world is now such a tiny place I don't think the markets are that segregated any longer. I'd hate to think entire countries and continents are off limits to me because I prefer that period at the end of Mrs.

Now, I won't even get started on how completely impressed I am by the English-as-second-language friends I have who actually speak and write better English than I do. It's hard enough for me to keep a handle on story, characterization, dialogue, setting...but to do it in a foreign language? That is talent!

1 comment:

McVane said...

Ooh, you touched one of my favourite topics. My only rule is always consider the context. In other words, readers you are writing for or the setting you use in your story.

I know some Brits are arrogant enough to assume that since the English language is "founded" [I use this word *very* loosely] in England [yes, not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland; just England], British English is *the* correct version. My response? Bullsh*t. Those days when British English dominated the 'world' are long gone. Let it go, people.

I mean, it's like with names, e.g. Caitlin. Many Americans say it as 'Kate-lyn', but the Irish pronunciation is "Cautleen" [Cathleen]. Does this mean Americans are wrong? No, it just means we have two versions: the Irish version and the American version. And neither is incorrect. IMO, American Caitlin has a history of its own, therefore it's not 'wrong' [but it's incorrect to say that Caitlin/Kate-lyn is an Irish name because it's not! :D].

It's same with American English. This is a long way round to say that because it's different, it doesn't mean it's 'wrong'.

That said, I do get annoyed with the growing trend of Americanising non-American works, yet this doesn't happen the other way round. I read the UK edition of an American novel, and it's exactly same as the US edition, e.g. it's not Britishised. I read the US edition of a British novel, and it's thoroughly Americanised. As irrational it may sound, it pisses me off.

What's the thing that always pulls me out of a story? 'Off/of', e.g. "Get off of me!" I don't think I'll ever get used to that! :D 'Block' is another. In an American-setting story, it's fine, but in a British-setting story, I find it a jolt. :> Sorry about the length of this response. I'll get off now! :D