Tag Archives: English

The joys and challenges of working with non-native English speakers

By Stephen Pigney

Who wouldn’t want a job that enables them to see the world? In the past few months my work has taken me to Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, Brazil, Colombia, the United States, Australia, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, India, Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Libya – and all without moving more than ten metres from my desk. These are the editor’s travels: armed with the right guidebooks (a good English dictionary and an appropriate selection of style guides are sufficient), a means of transport (an internet connection) and the right amount of energy (enough to make several journeys from desk to kettle to reference books each day), and the whole world is opened up.

Globe on a desk

These virtual travels and encounters with people from every continent are among the great pleasures of my work. They also present challenges. Home comforts often yield to unfamiliar ways of doing things; and linguistic differences frequently create inconveniences and can sometimes appear to be barriers to understanding and communication. But the good traveller welcomes such challenges, for at the heart of why we travel is the desire to experience and learn from the new, to understand, and to communicate. And good editors are good travellers.

Respect and admire those who write in their non-native language

As my list of international ‘destinations’ indicates, I encounter many people whose first language is not English. I estimate that between 80 and 90 per cent of my clients are non-native English (NNE) speakers. The quality of the NNE texts I work on varies considerably: some are written in enviably pristine, clear and stylish prose; but usually they manifest grammatical, syntactical and stylistic problems that can be extensive. Often, I will spend an hour initially reviewing an NNE client’s document and still have little idea of what it is saying. The temptation then to despair and turn one’s attention to complaining about the global state of written English, or to sharing with colleagues the chronic inability of some clients to write intelligibly, is, perhaps, natural. The good editor should – and must – resist such a temptation.

To observe that some NNE texts present huge editorial challenges is one thing; but to complain about such texts (or, worse, to mock or belittle them) has no place in good editorial practice. As an English-speaking editor, I am forever thankful that English remains the predominant language of international academia and business, and that there are millions of NNE speakers the world over who are personally and professionally committed to writing and publishing in English. And, as someone who has a passable reading knowledge of some foreign languages but no competence whatsoever to write in them, I admire anyone who is able to put together a few thousand words in a second (or even third or fourth) language.

Patience, focus and familiarity

The difficult NNE text poses practical problems – solving those problems is the essence of editorial practice. My experience is that, with patience, focus and careful editor–client liaison, almost any NNE text can be shaped into a clear and linguistically coherent document that more than meets the client’s (or the publisher’s) stylistic requirements. The more NNE texts one works on, the more attuned one becomes to mistakes and quirks of syntax common to much NNE writing; and the more familiar one becomes with a client’s writing, the more the intention and meaning of the writing becomes clear. Often, the editorial work takes on the character of translation, and translation requires time and familiarity to do well. Immediately diving into the editing of a difficult NNE rarely works; usually it is better to spend time reading it (without editing it), thinking about it, and compiling a list of issues and questions to be discussed with the client. Then one can begin the methodical editorial work: tidying up the easy things, resolving the more straightforward issues, gradually chipping away at the problems, and enjoying how the text slowly takes shape as a clear, coherent document whose meaning increasingly begins to emerge.

Learning about language and practice

Successfully editing a problematic NNE text so that it will be accepted for English-language publication is immensely satisfying. Most of my NNE clients are polite (I have never had a rude or impolite NNE client), and many express profound gratitude at the editorial work – after all, their career advancement often depends on publishing in English, so they invest much hope in their editor. Many are also keen to learn how to write well in English, and the advice I pass on and the discussions I have are invariably fulfilling ways of reflecting on and sharpening my own understanding of how English works.

Pieter Bruegal the Elder: Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c.1563. According to the myth narrated in the Book of Genesis, after the Great Flood humanity attempted to reach heaven by building a tower. To prevent them from succeeding, God confounded their language, so that they no longer spoke one tongue, and scattered them abroad. The story was long thought to explain why the world contains multiple languages.

However, editors are justified in feeling frustrated when there is a mismatch between, on the one hand, such involved and demanding editorial work and, on the other, the remuneration and time allowed for a project. This is by no means a problem unique to working with NNE clients; indeed, I find my NNE clients are frequently more understanding of the work involved and of what would be a realistic schedule and remuneration than are my native English-speaking clients. As with any project, it is the editor’s responsibility to explain the work involved and to agree to a mutually satisfactory working arrangement. That said, it takes experience (including more than a few tough experiences) to get a good sense of how much time is required for editing of NNE texts, and hence how to price such projects. Rather than complaining about NNE clients when one has a trying project, it is better to reflect on and learn from one’s own initial assessment of a project and communications with a client – or to complain about the unrealistic expectations of many editorial agencies who package out these projects.

With experience, the appropriate editorial skills, and a temperament suited to challenging projects, editors can find NNE clients to be a source of almost limitless, well-remunerated work. The pleasure of such work goes far beyond remuneration, however. In a world where the politics of borders and a suspicion of cultural and linguistic difference are on the rise, editing NNE texts is a reminder that communication is about transcending borders and bridging differences. What I see in my NNE editorial work is the desire all over the world to share ideas, to contribute to global knowledge, to learn from others, and simply to connect and engage in a spirit of friendship and mutual benefits. Some of my NNE clients are based in the UK, as students, academics or other professionals, and every one of their texts is a reminder of their immense and immeasurable contribution to the UK. And some of my NNE clients are based in their home countries, and I reflect on the important contribution my work makes to their countries. The linguistic and cultural differences of our world should be celebrated; but more than that, we should celebrate something that editors are doing all the time: productively transcending the differences, enhancing communication, and doing our bit to make the world a better and more interesting place for everyone.

Good editors are good travellers

Editorial work with NNE clients is a form of virtual travelling. To be a good traveller requires an open mind, a sensitivity to cultural difference, and a willingness to embrace, celebrate and learn from that difference – and the good traveller is rewarded with greater understanding and rich, liberating experiences. The same requirements and rewards apply to the NNE texts worked on by the good editor.

Stephen PigneyBased in London, Stephen Pigney is an editor who works with clients from all over the world. He started his editorial business in 2017, joining the SfEP at the same time; he is currently an Intermediate Member. With a background as a researcher and lecturer, he specialises in academic and general non-fiction writing on most subjects. He is trying to become a better non-native speaker of other languages.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

 

Plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Ever had to deal with text that makes you feel alienated, inadequate or frustrated? We’ve all had that experience – of struggling to make sense of writing that’s pretentious and showy, filled with jargon and buzzwords, or simply badly planned and confusing.

Sometimes you might long for the writing to be as poetic as Shakespeare, as gripping as Stephen King or as much fun to read as JK Rowling. But when you need information quickly, you just want it to tell you, without all the frills, what you need to know.

In other words, you want it in plain English.

Water ripples above book pagesWhat is plain English?

Plain English is about communicating with people in writing as clearly as possible.

George Orwell and Ernest Gowers, writing in the 1940s, were among the first to encourage writers to use plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human,’ wrote Gowers in his guide Plain Words. There’s no one accepted definition today, but the International Plain Language Federation sums it up nicely:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. [our emphasis]

It’s about putting the reader’s needs first, even above the writer’s preferences, when it comes to deciding how to word and organise a text. This doesn’t ignore the writer’s priorities – quite the opposite! What’s your main aim as a writer, if not to communicate clearly with your readers?

What is it for?

You can use plain English to:

  • make information accessible to people who aren’t specialists in your area (whether that’s about health, money, research, government policy or something else)
  • share essential information (on safety or the law)
  • give people the chance to have a say on things that affect them, or to use services they’re entitled to
  • build a reputation for putting customers first
  • build a good relationship with readers
  • save time and money (on clarifying misunderstandings, reprinting documents).

So you can use it for ethical and economic reasons. By making letters, reports, policies, articles and application forms easier for people they affect to read and understand, you’re making a difference to those people. You’re also making savings for your organisation, and helping to achieve its marketing aims.

What can using plain English do for me?

Writing in plain English can help your organisation:

  • make the text more effective (informing, selling to or empowering the reader, or appealing to more readers)
  • market itself (by strengthening your reputation, building trust and loyalty, and attracting customers, staff and suppliers)
  • achieve its business aims (eg increasing profit by saving time and money)
  • fulfil its purpose (providing a public service, raising awareness of an important issue).

Open book with letters flying outHow can an editor help?

Editors offering plain English services can help by making text clearer and easier to read. Many of them can suggest ways to improve its structure and layout too.

According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English, the average UK adult has a reading age of just 13. They’re also busy – they don’t have time to read insurance policies for pleasure. So in a plain English edit, an editor aims to make the writing as easy as possible for the average person to read.

To do this, editors follow established guidelines, such as those in the Oxford Guide. ‘Translating’ a piece of writing into plain English isn’t a mechanical exercise, though – a trained editor considers the reader’s level of knowledge and what will be clearest for them.

Some editors can also help by:

  • giving training about using plain English
  • completely re-writing a document, or writing a plain English summary
  • designing templates and style guides that follow plain English principles.

What else can I do?

  • Keep the reader in mind when you’re planning, writing and designing the text – think about what will be clearest and most logical for them.
  • Make sure you’ve included all the information the reader needs – don’t assume they know as much about your subject as you do.
  • Learn about the principles of plain English (by doing training and using resources, such as those available from the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland).
  • Test the text on real readers to see if they understand it quickly and easily.
  • Get feedback from readers on documents you’ve already published and make improvements.

If you write in simple, direct language, readers are more likely to respect and value what you have to say. And this will make as much of a difference to you, and your priorities, as it will to your readers.

Laura RipperLaura Ripper began her career in 2004 at Plain English Campaign, where she translated all sorts of documents into plain language. In 2008 she moved to a wider editorial and communications role, which included raising awareness of the UK’s switch to digital TV. Laura set up her proofreading and editing business in 2012 to concentrate on the aspects of her job that she loves best. She still specialises in plain English, and has found these skills useful for every type of document – from journal articles to board game rules. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. When she isn’t at her desk, Laura loves walking in the hills. She has two feline assistants.

Luke FinleyLuke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. He briefly worked in publishing in the 1990s, but most of his working life has been spent in the voluntary and public sectors, in social policy development and implementation. His experience of local government gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying (sometimes in vain) to persuade people to communicate more clearly.  Luke will edit or proofread anything from academic books to charities’ annual reports to travel agents’ websites, but mostly works on social policy and politics texts.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

English Grammar Day 2018

By Abi Saffrey

Since 2014, the British Library and UCL (in association with PhilSoc and the University of Oxford) have hosted English Grammar Day. Although the event is primarily aimed at those teaching or studying grammar, the variety of sessions makes it a fascinating day for anyone with an interest on what we do with our words.Dictionary entry for grammarI first found out about English Grammar Day 2018 earlier this year (thanks Twitter) and was very keen to go – despite not having studied linguistics for 20 years, it’s still a subject that fascinates me and grammar is part of my day-to-day editing life. And it’s not often that you can get a day of CPD for the bargain price of £10 (and in the wonderful surroundings of the British Library too).

Jonnie Robinson started the day with a look at the British Library’s Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – excerpts of people talking about their word choices and grammar demonstrate how grammar forms part of our identity. The next session, presented by Lynne Murphy (an SfEP conference favourite), showed us the differences between American and British English grammar. Nope, not as different as we might like to think.

After a cuppa and a leg stretch, Rebecca Woods discussed how children acquire the grammar needed to ask questions – how they build up the components necessary to create a grammatically correct question (and how short a time it takes them), and of course what funny things they come out with in the process. How chickens?Small chick with other chicks behindTeaching and understanding grammar is on many teachers’ minds following curriculum revamps over the past few years. Suzannah Ferguson, a primary teacher now moving into postgraduate study, explained how there is a generation of teachers in schools who are without grammar knowledge and without second language knowledge. They face a steep learning curve just like their pupils. Suzannah was passionate about reassuring children (and teachers) that grammar is not the scary beast that it can easily be perceived as.

After lunch, SfEP President David Crystal brought humour and warmth to his session about grammar teaching.

‘Poppy knew what adjectives and nouns are.
She’d been drawing circles around them for ages.’

Giving children (and writers) the ability to play with words, to ask why changing the ‘standard’ word order changes the effect, develops their love of language. (Anyone for a game of adjective tennis?) Most children know many grammar rules through their acquisition of language – David believes we quibble and debate about around only 5% of grammar as a whole. We’re all grammar experts by the time we start to learn to write and read.

The final session was a panel discussion with all of the presenters, chaired by John Mullan from UCL. In summary:

  • Breaking (grammar) rules is fun.
  • Observe, explore and investigate language to make it – and grammar – interesting.
  • Usage creates norms.
  • Grammar arguments quickly evolve into identity.
  • Linguistic prejudice is real, and wrong.

Although the day was not directly aimed at editors, it did feed my appetite for language awareness and grammar knowledge. It reminded me to question my own preferences for certain structures or word choices; an author’s voice must be respected when it does not sound like my own.

I will certainly be booking my ticket for English Grammar Day 2019 as soon as the email arrives next spring – join me, editors and language lovers!

Abi SaffreyAbi Saffrey is an editorial project manager and copy-editor, and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She really should get around to finding a suitable postgraduate linguistics course.

 

 

 

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

SfEP social media round-up – March 2016

In case you missed them, here are some of the most popular links shared across the SfEP’s social media channels (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) in March.

share on social media

  1. Men make up their minds about books faster than women, study finds http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/08/men-make-up-their-minds-about-books-faster-than-women-study-finds?CMP=share_btn_tw
  2. Top 10 hateful characters you love in literature http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/02/top-10-hateful-characters-you-love-in-literature
  3. Do you know Irish verbs? Ten verbs from Northern Ireland that you’ll enjoy using http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/03/northern-irish-verbs/
  4. 10 reasons your web design isn’t working (and what to do about it) http://www.elegantthemes.com/blog/tips-tricks/10-reasons-your-web-design-isnt-working-and-what-to-do-instead
  5. Breaking rules and starting sentences with ‘And’ http://www.davidairey.com/starting-sentences-with-and/
  6. Should you only “edit what you know”? http://blog.editors.ca/?p=3440
  7. Fibonacci to Avogadro: numbers with names http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/03/numbers-with-names/
  8. Too many exclamation points? Never!!!!! U.K. educators derided for trying to police punctuation http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/too-many-exclamation-points-never-u-k-educators-derided-for-trying-to-police-punctuation
  9. Ways to make your (editorial) suggestions sound ‘softer’ and more polite http://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2016/03/23/you-could-always-email-him-making-suggestions-sound-nicer/
  10. Ten reasons why you should eat chocolate while reading http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/mar/23/ten-reasons-why-you-should-eat-chocolate-while-reading?CMP=share_btn_tw

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Patric Toms.

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

The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 2: Tear up the rule book?

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part two:

Tear up the rule bookIn part one, I talked about the changes I envisage the internet bringing to the range of Englishes currently spoken around the world. I was brought up with the mantra ‘Might Isn’t Right’. But as the internet leads to the blurring of the boundaries between all the world’s Englishes, might is most definitely right.

While we undergo this particular phase of language development, though, it will become harder and harder to teach ‘proper’ English; it will become harder and harder to justify changes when editing and proofreading, too. We are already careering towards a more global English, when the habits of one variety will bleed into the others. We are in the privileged position of watching it happen as no other generation has been able to do before. Its speed is breathtaking. Sometimes our stomachs flip. Sometimes it hurts our eyes. Sometimes you just want a few solid rules to cling onto, as they gave their shape to the English we knew growing up.

Evolution of the language didn’t stop when I was at school. It’s not stopped yet. It won’t ever. For now, it’s speeding up, fuelled by people communicating with each other in numbers never seen before, and displayed for all to see on the platform of the internet.

I remember an English lesson when I was aged ten or so, in which the wonderful Mr Harwood told us that the plural of hoof is hooves or hoofs, and that the plural of roof is roofs or rooves; that neither was wrong but that hooves and roofs were more commonly used. Well, that’s settled down in the last half-century. I don’t think I’ve ever seen rooves since. But I’ve also not yet come across anyone else who was taught that there are varieties of ‘correct’ and that weight of numbers matters in language (might actually becomes right in the end).

We’ve all seen evolution in action – consider E-mail to e-mail to email; on line to on-line to online. The new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brought out in 2007 took out 16,000 hyphens. Evolution is accompanied by mass extinction events, after all.

Even experienced editors, who know all this stuff, sometimes betray themselves with a ‘Well, I was taught….’ or a ‘Which is correct…?’ Language is moving too fast, now. It’s always been a numbers game. ‘Aks’ for ask is around a thousand years old in Britain. So is singular ‘they’, plural ‘none’ and a host of other usages the reactionaries lambast as Wrong. Thousand-year-old mistakes perpetuated by the hoi polloi, or thousand-year-old valid alternatives? Who decides?

What’s hard to accept, perhaps particularly for those who really paid attention at school (but who weren’t lucky enough to have Mr Harwood) and have stuck to what they were taught ever since, despite the evidence all around them, is that there is no outside authority dictating these ‘rules’ or arbitrating disputes about them. There is just opinion: informed, uninformed and not yet formed. And there is time. And there are users of English. There is not necessarily consensus. Mash those up together, then you’ll find the prescriptivists are fighting a losing battle.

So – what’s to be done? We editors and proofreaders need to know our stuff, and to be able to defend our edits. How can we do this against a background where language is turning to quicksand? Two words: style guide.

The style guide will, I think, become the touchstone. It will be the standard for that publisher, that government, that company as now, but I can see that copy-editors will need to be far more proactive in producing style guides for clients. I suspect that more and more organisations will be publishing theirs, as The Economist, the Guardian, the BBC and the UK government have done. We will need to be aware of what free-standing style guides are available and talk to clients about choosing the one that best fits them, with or without a degree of personalisation.

The rule book isn’t dead – it never really lived. But style guides? They’ll go on forever.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Sandra Rawlin.

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

The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 1: Power to the people

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part one:

Magnetic letters The very phrase ‘democratisation of English’ is enough to send shivers down the spine of every self-diagnosed language maven who clings to ‘Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’ or ‘Don’t split an infinitive’ or (hopefully only in days gone by) ‘English should be more like Greek. Or Latin. Y’know, proper languages.’

Breaking news! That thud you hear in the background isn’t the sound of standards falling. It’s the sound of language remaining fit for purpose.

Over the last few months, I’ve noted more and more blog posts, articles and books that are anti-prescriptivism. Indeed, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s song ‘Word Crimes’ (July 2014) was quite widely pilloried for the number of shibboleths it managed to jam in and many fears were expressed that the – well, let’s be polite here – ‘less aware’ would take it as unadulterated truth and propound True Grammar According To My Teachers while the ‘more aware’ shake their heads in sorrow. There are still so many people posting in online editors’ groups asking for ‘The Rule’ for this or that circumstance, and then arguing about the answers. There is only one correct answer to that question. It depends. It always depends. The rule is, of course, that there are no rules – at least none that hold good for every single case in every single variety of English and in every single register in which it is used. What we do have are norms, set at varying levels of granularity in our language.

Nowhere is more democratic about language than the internet at large. Current estimates put English as the world’s most spoken language and third most common native language, with close to a billion people speaking English in some form.

That’s millions and millions of speakers of different varieties of English (well over 330 million native speakers of one kind and another, with some estimating more like 430 million); speakers with a wide variety of backgrounds, education and needs. All these people have votes equal to the number of times their words are intercepted by the search engines and bots indexing away.

So what will happen? I think that Englishes will, over time – and not too far off at that – start to merge. The differences we keep reminding ourselves of between BrEng and AmEng and AusEng and CanEng and all the other Englishes we edit and proofread will, I think, inevitably become ever more blurred. We might – goodness! – end up with just Eng.

A lot of my editing is of books by non-native English-speaking academics, and I routinely see that their spelling and punctuation wobbles from side to side of the Atlantic; often swayed by whatever they used for that part of their own work – spellings and punctuation mimic the variety of source material without thinking about consistency in the new piece. With so much international writing and international-team writing, we are already well on the way towards obfuscation of the differences between AmEng and BrEng.

Still, Canadians seem to cope with their own spelling caught between a British rock and a US hard place. The Editors’ Association of Canada: Editing Canadian English (9781551990453) is quite open about CanEng being a hybrid, and accepts that Canadians may write both ‘harbor’ and ‘centre’, taking internal consistency to a more granular level than the native British or US speaker is used to. It quotes Peter Sypnowich: ‘Henry Fowler declared that American and British English should not be mixed, an injunction that must leave Canadians speechless.’ I fully expect Fowler would be aghast, but I do think Canada is a model that will be followed by other Englishes.

Is this democratisation of our language a race to the bottom? No! How could it be? There will still be the demand for all the different registers – and there will still be a sense of what is well-written and what is more, well, vernacular, but I don’t see English splitting into elite and proletariat versions, and certainly not into non-compatible Englishes, for two reasons.

  1. Globalisation won’t allow it – people need to be able to communicate and English is the lingua franca of much of the world. How will people who need to be able to communicate with each other find it useful to make new and/or stronger distinctions between my English and your English?
  2. Online, people are, I think, less aware of where a particular person is from. The people I communicate with on various forums won’t necessarily know my nationality. We will pick up quirks of a language we like and use them ourselves, spreading them widely. Others will pick them up and spread them further still. And these usages will live or die according to how useful people find them.

Where does this leave copy-editors, in particular? Well, writing a lot of style notes and word lists – if you want the glib answer. People who work with language, as we do, are pretty attuned to different registers and readily absorb a sense of what will and won’t do in a given piece of writing. It will be a challenge if an author demands to know on what authority you made a certain change or recommendation, and it will be harder if that author is old school and clings to ‘What My Teacher Said’. We will have to develop strategies to deal with that, and talk about norms, readability, flow and clarity rather than rules; and remember that there is not now, nor ever has been, only one right way.

It’s often hard to remember that there is no authority handing down the Rules of English to its speakers. Language doesn’t work like that (unless you’re French…) – there is no committee somewhere out there deciding what English usage is right and what is wrong. Dictionaries describe usage – they don’t prescribe or proscribe. There are only the people using English – an awful lot of people – communicating with each other across the world more than ever before, faster than ever before and deciding by mob rule what works and what doesn’t. And do you know? It was always like that. But now it’s big enough and fast enough for us to pull up a chair, grab the popcorn and sit and watch it happen.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller.

Proofread by SfEP associate Alex Matthews.

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