Does English need colour and glamour?

Color Abstract

For that matter, does English need favour, honour, flavour, savour and so many more -our words? Before our Australian, British and Canadian fellow English speakers panic – relax. This is just a point of discussion. From the standpoint of communication, it does seem that color, glamor, favor, flavor, honor and savor are satisfactory. Yes, these are the American spellings, but please note, US English generally prefers glamour. Thus the US -our/-or spellings are also not clearly defined.

Moreover, outside the US, the spellings are honourable but honorary (not honourary) so English in the UK is equally inconsistent. I must confess that I am a bit OCD and this type of untidiness is somewhat unnerving. While it is not going to end world hunger or solve world peace, I can’t help but ask whether we can come to some agreement on the lack of consistency and find some common ground. To add to this situation, some derivations of these words have already begun to lose the extra “u“ in the UK spelling. Note that the derivations of glamour and humour in the UK are glamorous and humorous, respectively. The combination of –our plus –ous appears to be a bit too much for all English speakers.

Noah Webster is basically responsible for many of the reforms in English spellings such as color ~ colour, center ~ centre and defense ~ defence. There has not been a real reform since then, in the early 1800’s, so it may be time to rethink some of these inconsistencies and redundancies. One argument for a reform is economic: producing text in all varieties of English can be very expensive.

Clearly there is a good argument for retaining the cultural flavo(u)r and historical development. English is richer for these details. Therefore I would like to ask you, do we really need “u” in our “our” words, or will “or” suffice for communicating on a worldwide basis?

Our native language is a very personal and emotional subject; language is identity. We all want to keep our individual identity and cultural perspectives. To quote a great observer of human nature on tradition and innovation:

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven’t been done before. Mark Twain

English neutral

Matrix worldWelcome to the matrix: English in binary form?

During several decades of teaching English in international settings, particularly academic English, I have encountered non-native speakers who are uncertain of the regional written varieties of English. In fact, there are also many native speakers who are just as uncertain. As the Internet exposes all of us to more and more markets, the lines continue to blur.

Many books have been written about the vocabulary differences between American and British English; many humorous stories circulate on the Internet. But the differences go beyond vocabulary; English also varies regionally in spelling, punctuation, slang and even grammar.

Generally speaking, most writers already know the guidelines when they approach a publisher and have prepared their manuscripts accordingly. However, there are times, especially for academics, when they would like to submit articles to American, Australian, British or Canadian publishing houses. They certainly increase their chances of being published, but only if their language conforms to the specific norm.

One solution I suggest is to embrace “English neutral” … to find the overlap in English varieties where we all agree and avoid the specific regional markers. Easier said than done? Yes. However it’s not impossible.

First there are the obvious spelling differences like center or centre, organize or organise, theater or theatre, etc. Often a synonym provides a quick solution: middle, order, play/film, respectively.

Then what about punctuation: the Oxford comma (also called the Harvard or serial comma), punctuation (period or full stop) with honorifics and abbreviations including Mr/Mr., Mrs/Mrs., Dr/Dr., etc, etc. Well, the serial comma is in dispute on both sides of the Atlantic, honorifics and other abbreviations can be dropped (or as I did above with et cetera,  placed it at the end of the sentence.)

Next slang, but we can skip this one. In formal writing, just drop it. So we now come to grammatical differences. One of the most obvious differences is what linguists call notional concord — that is, the “notion” of what is meant in making the subject and verb “agree”  – I agree, you agree, but she agrees. Brits can regard family and government, for example, as either singular or plural: the family are, the government are.  The principle is what “notion” of the family and government is meant – as a single unit or as individual members. My solution has been to suggest that we always write using an indisputable plural: members of government, family members when the plural is intended.

There are many more details to consider; I truly welcome input, more examples, and especially solutions. Moreover if anyone can think of a neutral synonym that can equally replace color/colour, I would consider posting a reward!

But to return to the original premise: English in binary format. Unfortunately it’s not very workable. To begin with, binary code is based on letters, and thus the original spellings … so unless we change the original forms, we are back where we started  — variations.

Note: except for the contrasting American/British examples, this entire blog has been written in English Neutral.

To make an impact, but not to impact?

Like a tidal wave, the impact of English diversity
A tidal wave, the impact of English (and editing)

Tweets and articles reporting the pet peeves of copy editors have been circulating widely and wildly during the past weeks. The annual conference of ACES, the American Copy Editors* Society, was held in Pittsburgh March 26-28. One of the standouts among editors’ pet peeves was disagreement on the use of the word impact as a verb. See link here.

This is nothing new; many stylebooks, including The Associated Press and the Financial Times, discuss the use of impact. AP says to use it sparingly; FT does not condone it. In fact, impact is not the only noun to be denied verb status by stylebooks. Also included in this group is to author. Personally, I use impact as a verb informally, but admit that I “apologize” for its use in the company of editors. I tend to agree with stylebooks about author; I feel “write” is a better choice as a verb. But I totally cringe when I hear signature used as a verb. So we each have our limits, personal levels of acceptability – our own pet peeves.

Is the use of impact as a verb such a linguistic sin? After all, the past participle form of the verb is used as an adjective, as in an impacted tooth or molar.

Actually this is probably a good time to introduce descriptivism vs prescriptivism. Or in plain language if you aren’t a language buff, what we really say and write vs what we have been told is correct. Now, I could say that I am a descriptive linguist which is basically redundant. Are there linguists who are not descriptive?

While I personally adhere to the descriptive view, I recognize the need for the prescriptive approach as well. Each and every thing properly in its place.

Do we need prescriptive rules? Probably. If we consider how unregulated English is now, and how much more so it could become, then we would do well to listen to editors’ advice. It’s like trying to hold back the classic tidal wave, but here of different forms, spellings, use of words, meanings. Maybe a little order wouldn’t hurt.

It impacted, she authored, he signatured. Can the message be understood? Yes. Is it good writing? It depends. Editors are not only concerned with the content of a message, but whether text is technically written well and flows smoothly. In truth, anyone can write. Few can write well. Editors and copy editors are there to help us all write better.

Again, the distinction is one of when and where to use which forms. We can have our local, personal, colorful English, but write formally in a consistent common standard. English is richer for the local dialects in plays, poems, literature and blogs. But remember to consider stylebooks and editors, at least when the goal is to have your writing accepted by a major publication.

*And yes, there is no apostrophe in their official name, according to their own website.

Marry merry Mary!

Marry2The title above is perhaps an unlikely but perfectly logical and complete sentence, albeit a string of homophones – that is, words where the phones (a linguistic term for sounds) are pronounced the same but spelled differently. In fact, the word phone is a homograph. That is, words spelled alike but with different meanings; phone can mean either a telephone or a sound. Homophones and homographs like these clearly illustrate the complexity of spelling and meaning in English. And these are the tip of, you know, an underwater mountain of ice. To the delight of comedians, English has thousands.

Movements such as the Simplified Spelling Society have proposed that words be spelled as pronounced. So we could choose any of the three words and rewrite the sentence as “Marry marry Marry!” or “Merry merry Merry!” or “Mary mary Mary!” There are obvious limitations to such a solution. The alternative would be a generic phonetic spelling such as “Meri meri Meri!” Again, hurdles to overcome. In truth, Oxford shows slight variations in the first vowel sound, but in the general “broadcast” American English pronunciation, all three are pronounced the same. So whose pronunciation should we use?

The etymology, origins, of the words are different of course, see Oxford Dictionaries online.

marry: Middle English: from Old French marier, from Latin maritare, from maritus, literally ‘married’, (as a noun) ‘husband’.

merry: Old English myrige ‘pleasing, delightful’, of Germanic origin; related to mirth.

And Mary as a name  –  the traditional spelling – has many variations as well, including Merry.

By reducing English spelling to reflect pronunciation could potentially mean the loss of rich historical and cultural information as well as the problems of which standard of pronunciation to use. So we are back to the beginning.

Is the pope Catholic (or catholic)?

Church window 2Undoubtedly both. Definitely Catholic and most probably catholic.

But that is a discussion for theologians and philosophers and not to be addressed here. However, the question is posed to illustrate a linguistic point. Depending on style and interpretation, capitalization in English does matter. In short, the sentence is used to illustrate what a difference a “cap” can make (with apologies for the pun.)

Oxford Dictionaries online offers the following definitions:

Catholic (adjective) Of the Roman Catholic faith. Of or including all Christians. Relating to the historic doctrine and practice of the Western Church; (noun) A member of the Roman Catholic Church.

catholic (adjective) Including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.

There are differences in style, of course, depending on which dictionary or stylebook you use as your preferred reference book; both or neither vary in casing. But most reference books differentiate between the use of the adjective (or noun) related to the Roman Catholic faith and the general meaning of all-embracing or universal, usually by capitalizing the first meaning.

If these were the only pairs in our language, English would be simpler. But there are many. In fact, while on the subject of themes papal, “see” also the entry on the see, as in the Holy See, which is most often capitalized.

See (noun) The place in which a cathedral church stands, identified as the seat of authority of a bishop or archbishop.

And then there is also “sea”, a homophone, and a topic for another time.

Common ground

Common Ground

If you live in Indiana or Tennessee, it may never occur to you to use the spellings organise, colour or oenology. Actually you might never use oenology, or the American counterpart enology for that matter, unless you are a true wine enthusiast. By the same token, if you live in London or Dublin, you would never consider using color or flavor. You may however use organize instead of organise, especially if you are an academic or follow Oxford Dictionaries’ spelling preferences.

But this situation appears to be changing with the increase in exposure to all regional varieties of English. And the common ground of course is the Internet, or if you prefer, the internet. Now we all have access to any corner of the world from our own living rooms, kitchens or local cafés.

During the last three decades I have lived in five countries and taught English to many non-native speakers, as well as native English speakers in the US at the university level. Foreign students of English are often exposed to a variety of “Englishes”, and often they don’t even realize there are variations of English. Add in their exposure to English worldwide on the Internet – the good, the bad and the truly ugly – and the result is a true hodgepodge of linguistic chaos. Pure anarchy.

Everyone is able to communicate in English, with some mishaps from time to time. So is there really a problem? For simply communicating, probably very little. For writing well and writing professionally. A lot. A heck of a lot. To use the colloquial, a helluva lot. (Yes, it is in Webster’s New World, 4th and 5th editions.)

Our common ground then is an English that can serve us as a useful tool to communicate both informally as well as an advanced tool for writing, be it for your own blog or to submit to The New York Times or the Financial Times.

Fortunately we are entering a time when there are more and more programs and tools to aid us in our writing endeavors (or endeavours). Under Links above, this blog will list some of the most useful sites and programs currently available.

And never the twain shall meet…

Two, or more, ways to spell many words.
Two, or more, ways to spell many words.

Here we see two different ways to spell the same word, but let’s hope the different spellings don’t meet … at least not in the same paragraph, or even in the same document for that matter!

Speaking of twain (archaic for two), consider Mark Twain who expressed his disdain for editors, often and strongly. He is acknowledged as saying “…he must have little genius who can’t spell a word in more than one way.” Actually this quote has had many incarnations including something about a writer who can only think of one way to spell a word lacks imagination. Or he who cannot spell a word more than one way cannot be trusted. Or he [Twain] had no respect for someone who cannot spell a word more than one way.

Twain does make a valid point; variation enriches language. But variation of this type can confuse and irritate the reader. When we write, we help our readers by maintaining consistency. Variation can be added with synonyms: same meaning, different words, not the same word, different spellings.

Mark Twain had strong opinions and great insight. As a writer and human. Variation in our writing is desirable for novels and creative works. Blogs … tweets … emails … notes … letters … personal communication. Language is so much richer for the variation and nuances we use.

But to disseminate – spread – information fluently and with ease, one standard would serve us well.  Consider efficiency and speed. Beyond literature and reading for enjoyment, our time is limited … business reports, technical manuals, trade journals, academic manuscripts and daily newspapers should not challenge us to read and reread the same sentence again and again.

On a global level, to communicate a message clearly, a unified, logical, systematic form of English is desirable. In plain English. It is much more difficult to write precise, accurate text than long-winded ramblings where the writer is clearly lost. What can we expect of the reader then.

When we write to communicate information, consider these points: write concisely … write clearly … write short sentences … use short words. Except for blogs where we can have some fun breaking the rules and enjoy the ambiguity and double-entendre English is so full of. (There. I broke a rule … broke quite a few, in fact!)

Plain English. One English. Please.