Tag Archives: language

Excellence


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

English revels in the bad, sad, seamy side of life – any slang thesaurus, for example, will provide far more words for misery and failure than for happiness and success. Which means synonyms for ‘excellence’, as in the title of the SfEP’s newsletter Editorial Excellence, should be particularly cherished.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of historical superlatives well worth resurrecting. We’ve sadly lost, for example, ‘lollapalooza’, a gem from the US for anything outstanding in its field. It sits alongside the equally expressive ‘humdinger’, another US term for something so good it positively zings.

Something may be such hot stuff it’s ‘mustard’, a 19th-century term of approbation implying piquancy and zest, best known in the expression ‘cut the mustard’ (‘cut’ here works in the same way as ‘she cuts a fine figure’).

Close up of yellow mustard flowers, with a yellow field of mustard flowers behindA person of brilliant attainments, meanwhile, might be a ‘diamond’ – a glittering example in their field. Or they may be ‘peachy’, a simple play on something sweet and juicy. Their brilliance might even have once led to the epithet ‘carbuncle’, rarely associated with positivity these days but originally described as a precious stone (rather than a swelling) of blazing, fiery red.

More obviously wonderful is a ‘corker’ – something so fizzy it pops – and a ‘ripsnorter’ – anything remarkable in terms of size, vigour or appearance. Alternatively, you might describe something first-rate as a ‘spanker’, ‘tip-topper’, ‘phoenicle’ (a little phoenix), ‘bobby-dazzler’, ‘beaut’, ‘pippin’, ‘bosker’ or ‘killer-diller’. Or possibly a ‘screamer’, too, once another name for the exclamation mark. All of which are ‘bonzer’, a classic Australian adjective that’s an alteration of ‘bonanza’ and comes ultimately from the Spanish for ‘fair weather’.

Finally, let’s not forget the fanciful phrases we’ve come to love for any acme of excellence or pinnacle of success. Joining the ‘bee’s knees’, back in the 1920s, were the ‘kipper’s knickers’, the ‘caterpillar’s kimono’, and the ‘elephant’s adenoids’. These, of course, were born out of our love of fanciful word play, but there is another favourite in the list that once enjoyed a very different life before joining the lexicon of distinction. ‘The dog’s bollocks’ was first recorded among printers, who used it to refer to the typographical colon-dash :-, thanks to its shape.

Excellence: something to strive for, if not always easy to achieve. At least we’ll have plenty of ways to describe it once we get there.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

By Erin CarrieFour yellow balls with faces drawn in black ink: one sad, one happy, one angry and one uneasy

An introduction to linguistic prejudice

We all have preferences when it comes to language – things we like and dislike. There are accents that we find friendly, catchy words that we pick up, and grammatical forms that we consider to be correct. But that means that there are also accents that we find ugly and unattractive, words that we think are silly or offensive, and grammatical forms that we – often quite adamantly – think are just plain wrong.

This is perfectly normal human behaviour. We have a natural tendency to organise our realities in this way, sorting things according to dualities such as good vs bad, right vs wrong, etc. But it does beg the following questions… What are these evaluations of language actually based on? Who decides what is good and bad, or even right and wrong, when it comes to language? And at what point do these preferences become prejudices?

Sociolinguists like myself would argue that there is nothing inherently good, bad or – dare I say – ugly about any aspect of language. These are social meanings that we have attached to language through convention. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the language that we consider to be correct tends to be the language of the elites within our societies.

Within the vastly variable and changing landscape of the English language, there is a tendency to think that dictionaries, grammars, style guides, etc, based on the linguistic norms of the South East of England have the greatest authority and prestige. More often than not, these norms become the standards that editors and proofreaders live and work by, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But what happens when the work being edited or proofread is written by someone using features of regional or second-language varieties of English? Should their writing conform to the aforementioned norms? At what cost? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the extent to which the profession privileges some voices over others and, in doing so, turns these preferences into prejudices.

The roles of editors and proofreaders

When editing and proofreading, there is inevitably a need to tread the line between (1) suggesting changes that will help the author communicate their message more effectively and (2) ensuring that the style and voice of the author is retained. Editors and proofreaders spend their time working with language and, though they may refer to style guides and implement language ‘rules’ consistently, they are also aware of the fact that language rules are abstract, ambiguous and, quite often, not applicable – there are always exceptions. This makes their roles more difficult to define – they have to use their own judgement and experience when reshaping the author’s message and mediating the relationship between writer and reader.

Every editor and proofreader should reflect on their role and consider the extent to which they are applying rules or asserting preferences, and enforcing so-called ‘standards’ or facilitating diverse voices in communicating their own messages in their own ways. Of course, some degree of conformity to agreed linguistic norms is essential for effective communication but these norms can be redefined and, even, subverted where appropriate. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone’s writing to conform to Standard British English rules when this doesn’t represent the language used by the majority of writers and readers.


Hand turning the pages of a dictionary
Problematic discourse within the editing and proofreading profession

My work on linguistic prejudice to date has focused on speech and, specifically, negative attitudes towards accents and their speakers. One example of the impact of such attitudes is the discrimination experienced by Kasha, shared in this video (Listen to Britain 2017), who moved to the UK from Poland in 1990. The hostile reactions that she has received, based on how she speaks, have made her question her Polish identity and have driven her to seek expert help for reducing and modifying her accent.

Kasha has clearly internalised the social bias against her accent, as she describes her pronunciation as ‘incorrect’ and talks about her accent as a ‘problem’. Disappointingly, her accent reduction coach also engages in this sort of negative discourse, saying that she’ll help Kasha ‘get rid of’ and ‘eradicate’ her accent and will help her to use more ‘elegant’ vowel sounds. Given the differential status of a Standard Southern British English accent and Polish-accented English, it is no surprise that Kasha claims to feel ‘empowered’ after these coaching sessions.

The reason I mention Kasha’s story, although it focuses on spoken rather than written language, is that this is exactly the same type of discourse that we encounter elsewhere and is, in fact, as prevalent within the editing and proofreading profession as in the accent reduction industry. It is not uncommon to come across the following terms in editing and proofreading discourse:

  • ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’
  • ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • ‘good’ and ‘bad’
  • ‘better’ and ‘worse’
  • ‘normal’ and ‘neutral’
  • ‘uncommon’ and ‘unusual’
  • ‘clear’, ‘pristine’ and ‘impeccable’
  • ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘problems’
  • ‘correcting’, ‘fixing’, ‘tidying up’ and ‘resolving’.

All of these evaluations of language are based on social, rather than linguistic, norms. Where linguists merely observe differences, society has a tendency to impose hierarchies whereby (1) some linguistic choices are viewed favourably and others aren’t, (2) some are viewed as unmarked and others as marked, and (3) some are considered to be pure and others to be somewhat tainted. All of this implies to writers that they should strive not just to communicate but to communicate perfectly. But, again, who decides what is perfect when it comes to language use? By enforcing the norms of the powerful elite, aren’t we simply perpetuating a system that favours some voices over others?

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.


Manchester Metropolitan University logo

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

I am a Polish editor of English

By Kasia Trojanowska

cat in a plastic carrier bag

When I was invited to write about the challenges and rewards of being a non-native speaker editor of English, it felt like the cat was being let out of the bag after a very long time. I am a non-native English speaker and an editor, but I never think of myself as such – to me, I’m simply an English editor. And now, finally, someone has noticed my big, fat secret.

Abi’s (this blog’s coordinator’s) invitation opened up something I hadn’t until then been ready to acknowledge. I imagine that seeing my name people must wonder where I’m from, how good my English actually is and what’s my claim to editorial competence (I also like to imagine they have better things to do). In today’s interconnected world, I could’ve been born in the UK to Polish parents – a lot of immigrant children carry non-English names. But I learned English in another country and came here in my 20s, and when I speak, the first thing you’ll notice will be my unfamiliar accent. Working as an editor, I’m basically asking to be judged on my language at every turn. Shouldn’t an editor be someone whose English, both written and spoken, is impeccable?

By virtue of my background, I’m facing two kinds of challenges already – my name and how I sound. Until that email from Abi, I would deal with them through avoidance. First, I’d be stumped if you found any mention of my background on my public profiles. I’d decided long ago that this would be my weak spot and didn’t want to draw attention to it in case this made anyone doubt my skills. And second, I would simply avoid speaking with clients, at all cost. Unfortunately for me, there are some people who just don’t get the message – and don’t do email. I now thank them.

To a certain extent, the challenges I’ve experienced as an editor of English are internal and come from the idea of what an editor should embody, which to me, and many others, is language knowledge and competence nearing the heights of perfection. As a profession, I think we are quite unique in holding ourselves, often publicly, to such incredibly high linguistic standards that it must come at a price. One of the consequences is that this makes some of us anxious communicators – and the challenge is multiplied for someone who has learned English as an adult. What I’d like us to remember though is that language is a system and therefore can be studied and learned. So can editorial craft. I studied English literature and linguistics for 5 years at university and have worked as an editor of English for nearly 12 years; that gives me close to 17 years of experience as an English-language professional. And I’m still learning – I take editing courses, I read industry books, scour the internet for current language trends, go to conferences – everything we all do as editorial professionals. I find professional development and education to be the best remedy for the lurking ‘English-language editor’ impostor syndrome that rears its head in moments of self-doubt.

Delegates at the 2018 SfEP Conference

Professional development at the 2018 SfEP Conference

The rewards are perhaps the same for me as for everyone else who loves their job. Contact with authors is immensely rewarding; one of my authors calls my editing her work ‘magic’ – it doesn’t get better than this! I engage with incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable and inspirational people who care about how they write, I read books and papers on topics I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, I learn and grow thanks to what I do for a living, and, to use that worn out cliché, I love reading. A challenge now is picking up a book for pure enjoyment, our common complaint I suppose.

I keep going back to that email from Abi, because it’s shifted something for me, prompting a change in how I think about myself and present myself to the world. That same evening, I edited my website bio to say I wasn’t born in the UK and I didn’t graduate from a UK university. Perhaps that’s another step in overcoming my biggest challenge – my own prejudice against myself as a competent, expert, non-native English-language editor.

*As a disclaimer I’d like to add that I have never experienced anything but kindness, encouragement and trust from my colleagues of various nationalities, not least the native speakers of English.

Kasia TrojanowskaKasia Trojanowska, APM (SfEP), MA (hons) English Lit, is an academic and non-fiction English-language copy-editor, proofreader and text designer. She was born and educated in Poland and came to the UK for no specific reason in 2007. Shortly after arriving in London, Kasia found her editorial calling and a first job as an assistant scientific editor. She works both with authors who are English native speakers and those for whom English isn’t their first language, and simply loves her job.

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.

Mediterranean Editors and Translators: All About Editing

First, a bit about me

As a ‘re-emerging’ translator, I have been attending METM conferences as another stop on the road to reconnecting with a profession I fell into years ago and laid aside due to personal circumstances. As a bit of an outlier, I justify my presence by moderating the ‘off-METM’ Translation Slam. A few weeks before the conference, I sent two ‘volunteer’ MET members a short text to translate from Spanish to English, and during the slam we discussed the choices they made (word choices, but also punctuation choices!). I mention this as it has a great deal to do with my experience of the METM16 conference, which this year was all about editing.

Wait, what is MET?

MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) is an association of translators and editors whose main language is English, whose objective is peer training, and whose founders thought Mediterranean sounded sexier than European.

Based in Barcelona, MET holds workshops two or three times a year, but the big bash is the annual conference in mid-to-late October. Following an afternoon and morning of workshops as warm-up, the day-and-a-half-long conference is filled with panel discussions, lectures, interactive sessions, and presentations set two or three to a timeslot, except for the two keynote or plenary talks.

metm16-cloister-lunch-sfep-cescanadon

This year’s conference, ‘Raising standards through knowledge sharing and peer training’, was held at Tarragona’s Centre Tarraconense ‘el Seminari’. The cathedral-ceilinged auditorium filtered the sunlight through its stunning stained-glass windows onto keynote speakers Margaret Cargill, in from Australia, and Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen’. Jealous yet?

Workshops and conference sessions

As I said, it was all about editing for me this year. I attended Joy Burrough-Boenisch’s fantastic three-hour Friday-morning workshop, Editing theses and dissertations written by non-native speakers of English, where I also learned about a series of online proofreading and editing guidelines. In the afternoon, John Linnegar taught me the difference between light, medium, and heavy editing; I was impressed by Kate McIntyre and Jackie Senior’s work as in-house academic editors in the Netherlands (and also made a note to look at SENSE’s guidelines); and Valerie Matarese talked about author editing. After a panel discussion on interventionism as an editor/proofreader of academic papers, I learned about ITI from Sarah Griffin-Mason, about the social science genre from Susan M DiGiacomo, about translating and editing titles from Mary Ellen Kerans, misused English in EU publications from Jeremy Gardner, and disability-related terms from Mary Fons i Fleming.

Keynote talks

Friday evening, just before the Clos Montblanc-catered wine reception in the cloister, Margaret Cargill shared with us her studied understanding of ethics and education in academic publishing in relation to editing and translating. The issue of what constitutes teaching, and where the line is drawn at what my professors used to call cheating, are hot topics. Times change, technologies change, the world is changing, and we professionals must keep abreast of how these changes affect the way that we work, whether our field is in academics or technology, business or fiction.

Right before Saturday’s cocktail lunch, also in the cloister, Mary Norris held us captive during her keynote talk, ‘New Yorker style: the major arcana’. Using a few New Yorker cartoons and a piece of fiction, Mary led us through the process of query-editing copy to the characteristically peculiar standards of the famous magazine. She even gave us an example or two of times when she clashed with the ‘artistic vision’ of certain authors. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses, she confessed, but she never seems to lose her good cheer or her enthusiasm. What a pleasure it was to have her at the conference, and it was an added pleasure to have both Margaret and Mary among the Sunday-morning post-conference diehards who took a stroll along Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater and beachfront to El Serrallo and a final vermouth among colleagues and friends.

But getting back to me

It turns out that what is showcased in every translation slam – the infinite ways in which a given translation can be resolved – is also true when editing text. The ethics involved in translating a 150-year-old Spanish text into the English of 2016 are as complex as those of editing a non-native-English speaker’s PhD thesis, even though the possible consequences may not be as dire.

Happily, the eternal question remains: How far can you stretch the truth of the original text to make it fit into ‘proper’ English? And what is proper English, anyway? I’m hoping to attend a few more sessions on this very subject a year from now in Brescia, Italy. #METM17

kymm1Born in Boston, Kymm Coveney has lived in Spain since the 1982 World Cup. A former commercial translator, she is currently transitioning to literature (Catalan/Spanish/English). Meanwhile, accounting pays the bills.

Links to poetry, flash fiction and translations are at BetterLies. Glasgow Review of Books showcases her latest poetic translation. She tweets mostly about poetry @KymmInBarcelona.

Photo credit: Cesc Anadón, MET

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Tom Hawking.

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

How I got started – Samantha Stalion

Samantha Stalion working outsideOne of the most common questions asked at Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) local groups and by those interested in pursuing a career in editing or proofreading is: ‘How did you get started?’.

SfEP ordinary member Samantha Stalion shares her story in this regular blog feature, which explores the many different career paths taken by SfEP members.

As I sit here in the sunshine, with my laptop and ergonomic mouse on the table in front of me, I cannot help but ponder my life. How did I end up here? I guess it’s taken me a while to realise what it is I want to do with my life. I mainly have my husband to thank for my long-awaited eureka moment just over two years ago. But not least I should mention my editor-in-chief father, who has remained supportive and encouraging over the years, and who – although I only recently realised this – has continuously looked over me, exuding his own unrivalled determination and proficiency in the publishing profession. Perhaps it was my adoration for my father and the entrepreneurial mindset of my ambitious husband that have somehow combined to spur me on to reach my own goals and continue to develop professionally.

I don’t think I was ever particularly academically gifted – I was merely an average student – but a certain degree of maturity and curiosity to learn more about the world we live in has enabled me to use my skills to master my profession and steadily move forward, making a living along the way. As an editorial fledgling, I was lucky enough to have some great role models and mentors over the years, and my fluency in various languages and broadened horizons have certainly added to my competency in this profession.

In any case, going back to how I got here … I have a lot to say for my (or indeed anyone’s) multicultural and multilingual upbringing. English, German and Dutch all played an integral role in my early years, and later (at degree level) Spanish was added to these language skills. Not only were the languages a part of my upbringing, so too were the cultures behind these languages and the countries in general. As languages remained very much a part of my everyday life, I began to explore these skills and integrate them into my professional career, choosing jobs that required them. I ventured into translation and successfully completed a postgraduate translation course run by City University London. Having realised that there is much more to translation than generally assumed, I became intrigued by other professions that depended on language skills.

Owing to my father’s connections (and, in a way, I guess my own connections), I was able to land a gig translating articles on religions for an encyclopedia, for a reputable academic publisher in the Netherlands. I worked on this project for a couple of years, on a part-time basis, before being asked to work on other encyclopedia projects – not as a translator, but as a copy-editor. With next to no copy-editing experience, I was given on-the-job training and, four years and a few pay rises later, I am still copy-editing for the same publishing firm on a couple of different projects – I must be doing something right.

In the last couple of years, in addition to dabbling in freelance work alongside my full-time job in the printing industry, I decided to consolidate my editorial skills with some additional training and qualifications. I passed the ‘Basic proofreading by distance learning’ course provided by the Publishing Training Centre with merit and completed the ‘Brush up your grammar‘ course offered by the SfEP. After learning the proper use of BSI proofreading marks, and with some helpful tips and advice on how to get started as an editorial freelance, I gained the confidence necessary to jump into the full-time freelance whirlpool. Additionally, I successfully upgraded my SfEP membership status to ordinary member.

Local SfEP group meetings have been a source of encouragement and invaluable advice, and the forum discussion boards on the SfEP website remain a daily source of inspiration and guidance.

Unfortunately, with an imminent move to the States (the price you pay for being married to an American), gaining work and new clients has been slow going. However, I imagine with some extra determination and hard work I will get to where I want to be professionally before too long. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

My advice to other freelance newbies just starting up their own business: draw on ALL the contacts you have and GO FOR IT!

Samantha Stalion profile shotSamantha Stalion was brought up in a multicultural family. She completed her high-school diploma in the Netherlands, studied Dance and Spanish at Chester University and completed a postgraduate translation course at City University London. Recently, she completed the ‘Basic proofreading by distance learning’ (PTC) and ‘Brush up your grammar’ (SfEP) courses and she is currently enrolled on the PTC’s ‘Copy-editing by distance learning’ course. Samantha is an ordinary member of the SfEP and recently launched her freelance business Samantix et al, offering editorial and translation services to academics and businesses.

Proofread by SfEP associate Sandra Rawlin.

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

Why language matters when discussing terminal illness and death

Word cloud of metaphors used in end-of-life and deathHow do people talk about the end-of-life and death? And why does it matter? The language used at these, often difficult, times can have a great impact according to Zsófia Demjén, a linguist and lecturer at The Open University‘s Department for Applied Linguistics and English Language. She offers food for thought for anyone editing text that includes a description of serious illness or death.

How people talk about something, so the theory goes, can tell us as much about what they think as the content of what they’re actually saying. This is the premise of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ (MELC) project at Lancaster University.

Over 20 months, an interdisciplinary group of researchers (linguists, computer scientists and palliative care specialists) led by Elena Semino scrutinised the spoken and written language used by terminally ill patients, family carers and the healthcare professionals who work with them. They collected 1.5 million words of interviews with and contributions to online fora by the three groups and focused specifically on what kinds of metaphors they used and how.

Metaphor involves talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another. When you say that someone died after a ‘battle’ with cancer, you talk about being ill and attempting to get better in terms of military conflict. When you say that someone has ‘passed away’, you talk about dying in terms of a movement away from a current location. Metaphors are interesting because they are often used in describing complex, emotional, subjective and taboo experiences, such as health, illness and death. They can convey things indirectly but also vividly and concisely. Any systematic patterns suggest underlying attitudes, thoughts and needs of those using the expressions. For example, early on in the project the team noticed that death is talked about in at least two ways: sometimes it’s something that approaches the patient, ‘they are aware the end of their life is coming’, and sometimes the patient moves towards it, ‘some people are very, very upfront about talking about death and dying and “that’s where I’m going. It is my end-of-life”‘.

Different ways of describing the same thing have different implications and suggest different underlying attitudes. Death approaching the patient can imply that he or she has no control or influence over what is happening to them. While this may ultimately be true for all of us, various aspects of the experience of terminal illness are open to influence and the second framing (patient approaching death) allows for that more easily. This is a common theme: metaphors, in their entailments and implications, always foreground certain aspects of whatever experience they’re describing, while backgrounding others.

The proverbial ‘battle’ and ‘journey’ metaphors for illness are no different. Examples such as ‘staying as positive as possible is a proven way of fighting back’ and ‘I am ready to kick ass! Bring it on!’ highlight the ways in which being ill may involve strength, perseverance, endurance and heroism, and encourage us to see recovery as a victory (and not recovering or dying as defeat). But these examples also background the possibility of seeing illness as part of life, as something to go through or as a journey shared with others: ‘We met all sorts on our cancer journey’; ‘you seem to have come through the tunnel of cancer and are on the mend’.

These and many other types of metaphors are used by all three groups in the MELC dataset. No single metaphor is objectively superior to another; different metaphors may be more or less appropriate for different people, or for the same person at different times. When people describe their experiences or when others describe these for them, it is crucial that there are a variety of options so that vulnerable people don’t have unsuitable framings imposed on them. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the entailments of each choice in case they point to underlying issues that require attention.

Dr Zsofia DemjenDr Zsófia Demjén is Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. She specialises in the intersection of language, mind and healthcare,​​​​​​​​​ investigating the implications of how people use language to describe their experiences of illness. Before she joined The Open University, Zsófia was Senior Research Associate on the Metaphor in End of Life Care project at Lancaster University. You can follow Zsofia on Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Gary Blogg.

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.