Monday, 14 December 2009

Words, words, words.

I’ve just done one of the relaxing, pleasurable things connected with writing; I read through and signed a contract. And, since the first draft of the book to which it relates has already been written, it means I can sit back, cash the advance (no, it isn’t enough to get a Ferrari or even solve the debt problem of a small uninhabited island but it’s money), and await further instructions.

As I was reading through it, though, it did occur to me that it had probably taken the lawyers a day or so, three at the most, to draw it up and, on a purely word-count basis, their remuneration would be significantly higher than mine. Fine, they studied for their degrees, worked as juniors (or however the system operates today) and, if anything nasty hits the fan, they’ll have to clean it up, so good luck to them.

It is, though, rather ironic that, whereas we (usually anyway) work to make our meanings clear, their technique is to multiply the ‘howevers’, ‘notwithstandings’, ‘heretofores’ and let clauses be as promiscuous as they like and reproduce themselves inside swelling paragraphs which are desperate for the relief/release of a full stop. Different worlds, different words.

Then, when I went to post the signed contract, I stood in the long Christmas queue at the counter and more words jumped out at me. I’ve tried to avoid saying too much here about writers who fail to distinguish between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ and all the rest of them. I’ve come to accept it in general but writers ought to be more respectful of their medium. I'm not talking about conversational speech but prose which has been submitted to editors, agents, publishers, competitions by someone calling him or herself a writer. It’s fine to break the rules of grammar but only if it’s for a purpose and only if you know them in the first place. (I obviously exempt non-native speakers from this opprobrium because English grammar – and pronunciation for that matter – is notoriously difficult when it’s your second language. And because I’m afraid of Scary. And Anneke.)

But I thought these other two examples were interesting in their different ways. First, a woman with a quite refined English accent (I’m in Scotland, remember) said to the server ‘May I purchase this calendar?’
Now there are all sorts of things that could be said about such a request. The calendar was hanging on a hook, with a very evident price tag on it, so the betting was that, yes, she probably would be allowed to buy it. There was the tiniest stress on the word ‘I’ so did she think it was only for sale to a chosen few customers?
But it was the word ‘purchase’ that struck me. Why not ‘buy’? Does she go home to her husband, partner, elderly aunt, or whoever she shares a house with and say ‘I purchased a calendar today, darling/sweetie/Aunt Murgatroyd/whoever’? If she does, it’s delightful to imagine the ensuing conversation, which would be full of:
‘Was the vendor helpful?’
‘Indeed, most accommodating.’
‘Will you be imbibing any wine this evening?’
‘Copious amounts, but first I must micturate.’
I’m not being nasty or superior, I love it that we have these different registers and that people actually use them, but that word ‘purchase’ seemed so incongruous in a shop full of people stressed out with Christmas shopping and having to wait to buy a couple of stamps. But the woman duly purchased her calendar and went home content.

The other example is again grammar-related but interesting in a different way. A young man with a strong Indian accent was posting bundles of cards to places in the UK, France, Canada and Australia. I’ve had one to one sessions with students brought up in India and they speak a much more correct form of English (if slightly outdated) than the majority of British people. One card in each of the bundles had to be weighed to determine the cost of the postage and, at first, through no fault of his own, the man wasn’t doing it right.

The reason was that the man serving him was an Aberdonian and spoke in the local vernacular. On this occasion it wasn’t that the accent was distorting the actual sounds (although that happens very often) but he was making a familiar ‘mistake’ by saying ‘Put one of that cards on the scale’. We all know that, technically, it should be ‘those cards’ – and that’s what the Indian man had been taught, so the mixture of singular and plural had him baffled momentarily. (Another blatant example is the use of the past tense where it should be the past participle – ‘I’d ran to the bus stop’, ‘He’s gave her a present’, etc.)

But I’m definitely not mocking either man. There are many such grammatical ‘mistakes’ that are accepted currency and some of them are perpetrated by characters in my books. If they didn’t speak that way, they wouldn’t be authentic. The important thing is to be understood. I suppose I only noticed it this time because of my struggle with lawyer-speak and the woman’s use of ‘purchase’.

Language is wonderful.


  1. English must be a freakin' nightmare for foreigners. It's difficult enough to learn all the rules when you grow up with it. There and their are two that always trip me up

  2. Yes Michael. My wife taught it in France for a year and kept asking me how to explain particular idioms and things. It was interesting trying to figure it out sometimes but also bloody perplexing. There doesn't seem to be any logic about it at all.

  3. A little joke from my favourite Donald Duck magazine:
    Boy: I'm so glad I'm not Chinese.
    Mother: Why so?
    Boy: Because I don't speak a word Chinese.

    English is not more difficult than any other foreign language. And there is always more logic in English grammar (and even in Dutch) than there is in Microsoft products. But, the examples from your blog post are interesting, especially the purchase dialogue. I understand it, it is funny and I get the point, but I could never write it myself while in Dutch I do it all the time. Playing with old-fashioned words, formal language, using particular sentences, accents.
    I think this might be the biggest challenge of learning a foreign language, to get beyond that point. I just love it.

  4. Michael,
    If you think English is a nightmare, try learning Russian! I always think how lucky I am that I never had to learn it as a foreigner. I have no idea how anyone can do it.

    Bill, I loved your words story, especially the bit about that woman and her choice of the word "purchase". Not sure why, but it made me think of a particular thing I personally, perhaps because I am not a native speaker, find incredibly irritating when people do.
    Please please tell me you don't do it. :)

    It is when people say 'appreciate' without a 'SH' sound but with a 'C'. Or the word Issue. Agrrrr....I just want to slap them! It is not a tissue with a c, is it? Or is it to them, I wonder.

  5. Delightful scene envisioned there when the calendar-purchaser gets home. I love looking at the differences between English and American, and it was fun to read about English and Aberdonian.

  6. Personally, living the better part of an ocean and a continent away from you, Bill, I your word choices highly entertaining and unique. Except when I don't understand them. What does "micturate" mean? And don't tell me to look it up in the dictionary, either.

    P.S. I especially liked your promiscuous, reproducing paragraph. Subtle, Bill...

  7. Anneke, I like your observation on being so comfortable with a language that one's able to get beyond the point of merely writing and conversing fluently and have the confidence to play games with the language, use different registers and so on. I never feel I’m me when I’m speaking French because I don’t have access to the breadth of vocabulary I have when speaking English. Having said that, you know I have nothing but admiration for your English and it never occurs to me (with you or Scary) to change the way I speak or write to ‘accommodate’ the fact that you’re not native speakers – because, as far as I’m concerned, you are.

    Scary, you can rest easy; I don’t say ‘appreciate’ without an SH, but I must say that’s one that hadn’t occurred to me because, in a way, it’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is when people say ‘I soar him in the distance’ (‘soar’ meaning ‘saw’). These things are all great when they’re a product of accents or dialects but when it’s just posh people distorting English (the way fashion designers distort clothes), the revolution starts to bubble inside me again.

    Sheila, yes it’s great fun writing such dialogues. As for the UK English/USA English discrepancies, I’ve had them pointed out to me several times during visits over there. I once directed 'As You Like It' for the University of Rhode Island theatre department and while giving notes after one rehearsal I said ‘Rosalind, you made a bit of a meal of that speech’. There were smiles and some chuckles. I asked them if that wasn’t an expression they used. They replied that hardly any of my expressions were.

    Now, Linda, you must overcome your resistance to dictionaries. I couldn’t possibly offer the more common synonyms for ‘micturate’ – they’re far to indelicate for such a genteel blog as this. But thank you for the ‘subtlety’ label.

  8. My elderly women neighbors in England would all talk "posh" with one another. Using formal language and mispronounced words in an effort to impress each other. Quite hilarious to eavsdrop on them.

  9. Hi Anon. Yes, I know what you mean. I love that sort of thing. I wish I heard it as often as Alan Bennett seems to, though.

  10. Bill, You should have visited me when you were at URI! I lived in the town of Attleboro, Massachusetts from 1971 - 2003, which is about 10 miles away. (Assuming you were at the Providence campus.)

  11. You need to have been brought up in rural Yorkshire to have been exposed to this phenom. It often resembled two giraffes battling. The neck pulled back and swaying, the teeth exposed over red lipstick, the strangled vowels and elongated endings of words... Like a muffled braying almost. Working class women also adopted what I call Ealing studio accents when faced with what they perceived were superior or middle class people. Like it was necessary to be understood when actually this new strangled language only confused people. My aunt would change from washer woman rough to Flora Robson posh in seconds at the doctors office. As kids we would stare dumbfounded at her wondering if she was ok.

  12. Posh. Working class ideas of posh were vey inconsistent. You need consistency in order to make any fantastic notion come off as believable. Fur coat and slippers do not make you posh. The heels came off as impractical and tatty grey/brown fluffy carpet slippers (because of corns usually) adopted when a trip to the shops was called for. Nothing as posh as a lady in her mink and slippers.

  13. Brilliant, Anon. What a great picture you paint - and although my upbringing wasn't in working class Yorkshire, it was in working class Plymouth where conversations as you describe took place in the wash-house (pronounced in a way that doesn't lend itself to phonetic transcription). I don't think we had much of the transition to posh but I know exactly what you mean by the posh you describe. Thanks so much for that - it really took me back.

  14. Linda. We stayed with friends in Wakefield and Narrangansett and we still visit them there. Next time we're over I'll get in touch.

  15. Language IS wonderful. I was one of those disgusting young teens who went around correcting other people's grammar and spouting the longest words I could memorize, whether I knew their meanings or not. After getting smacked down a few times I decided that writing them down was much safer (although not terribly profitable). :)

  16. I had a boss who mangled American English with the confident swagger of the totally ignorant, putting on the air of the 'well-bred'. He'd say he didn't mean to be disgrateful, or that something was magnisficant, or he'd leave it out for condiseration. Even if someone corrected him, he stuck with his version, lol.

  17. Jean, the long word strategy is a winner - trust me, I'm an ex-academic. The problem about writing words down is that they then take on the air of 'truth'. At least with the spoken word you can modify, qualify and otherwise defuse its potency. The written word locks you into a rigid stance. (So blogging is a risk.)

    Marley, I hope you used that in a character - it's terrific. A friend of mine does the same sort of thing, not to try to impress but just because he speaks and thinks so fast the words come out wrong. He's had people 'running the whole gambit of emotions', recognised that someone may have 'a mute point' and my favourite was when he saw an attractive woman walking past outside his window and said she looked 'quiche'. He meant 'chic' - it's the sort of stuff you almost couldn't make up.