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.

Enough said … editors and editing

Blue plume penWriting is like shadow boxing. Editing is when the shadows fight back. Adam Copeland

There are two typos of people in this world: those who can edit and those who can’t. Jarod Kintz

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly. C.J. Cherryh

An editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff.  Adlai Stevenson

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. Thomas Jefferson.

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. Truman Capote

There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them. Elie Wiesel

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out. Author Unknown

Red x penFor I am a bear of very little brain and long words bother me. Winnie the Pooh

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers. T. S. Eliot

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.


Enough said … writing and rewriting

Blue plume penIt is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. Friedrich Nietzsche

There is no great writing, only great rewriting. Louis D. Brandeis

Of every four words I write, I strike out three. Nicolas Boileau

Omit needless words. William Strunk Jr.

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. Henry David Thoreau

The best writing is rewriting. E. B. White

An incinerator is a writer’s best friend. Thornton Wilder

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. James A. Michener

Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out was the secret of all good writing. Mark Haddon

I hate editors, for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words. Mark TwainRed x pen

¡Spanglish spoken aquí!

EspanglishThe latest US census shows 53 million native Spanish speakers living in the US. That’s a population bigger than many developed countries in the world, and more than Spain’s 2014 population of 47 million. The largest concentration of Spanish speakers in the US are mainly in California and Florida, although they can also be found far north where some occasionally work as migrant field workers.

New Mexico has been a bilingual state since the area was first colonized by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the US and the second oldest European-settled city after St Augustine in Florida, which was also established by the Spanish in 1565. Thus speaking Spanish in the US is no new trend.

In fact the English language is full of words that originally entered through Spanish: abalone, adobe, aficionado, albatross, alligator, alpaca, armada, armadillo, anchovy, avocado, banana, barbeque, barracuda, bonanza, burrito, burro, bronco, cabana, cafeteria, cannibal, canyon, cigar, cockroach. And the list goes on and on.

There are television and radio stations as well as newspapers in Spanish. And telenovelas – Spanish-speaking soap operas.

Adiós is used as often as ciao or sayonara; and let’s not forget hasta luego and hasta la vista, with a nod to Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. In fact the film Blade Runner from 1982 hinted that a language based on Spanish, Japanese and German would evolve in Southern California. (But they hadn’t yet anticipated the flood of post-shah Persians who also play into the mix as parts of LA are informally called Little Teheran.)

Spanglish has become such a staple in the US that a movie of the same name was made in 2004. Then in 2006 the amazing and brilliant 2015 academy-award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu included a bilingual family in Babel, his tale of communication, noncommunication, miscommunication and discommunication. Basically, Culture Clash 101 were it to be included as a university course.

Many of the words that are now being included in Spanglish are new to English too like Googlear or gugulear (to google), clickear (to click), taguear (to tag), and tuitear (to tweet).

So Spanish enriched English with vocabulary and culture. And Spanglish, or Espanglish if you are a native Spanish speaker, is realizing the latest inflow or influx, or actually incursion, of English into Spanish. Again. And so the circle continues.

From Spanish Mid 17th century: from Spanish, alteration (influenced by avocado 'advocate') of aguacate, from Nahuatl ahuacatl.avocado: Oxford Dictionary (online) Mid-17th century: from Spanish, alteration (influenced by avocado ‘advocate’) of aguacate, from Nahuatl ahuacatl.


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.