August 2008


Is this headline correct? I think its use of ‘on to’ is incorrect, but I could be wrong. Should it not be onto? And yes, this was taken at my new hangout place – Vida in Willowbridge…

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At first I thought I’m in love. I thought it divine. I never thought I’d meet someone as articulated, concise and downright cute. I was sure it would be one of my very best relationships, ever. Alas, he wasn’t critical enough of my mistakes. Sure, he understood words such as bakkie, legotla and koeksister. You know, “all those words that give South African English its specific flavour”. Or so I thought. He is pretty two-faced, actually. Claiming to understand it, while not actually doing so. And his constant use of Americanisms becomes irritating. I don’t mind American spelling much but far prefer British English.

I knew it was too good to be true, so I am deciding on uninstalling the Firefox English (South African) dictionary. I’ll stick it out with the default version for now.

Why do we dislike American spelling and grammar? When I say ‘we’, I include myself grudgingly; I don’t mind American spelling much, but there are some things I would change about it.

What I’m pondering tonight (with a good bottle of wine to help me) is this: why has it become fashionable to deplore the way Americans write? These same Americans bring us gems such as Vanity Fair, Slate, The New York Times, Copyblogger, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner and Alice Walker. What is wrong with American writing that we constantly ridicule it?

Yes, I realise there are some horrific abuses against the English Language: ‘grow a company’; ‘write me’; and ‘man the front desk’. But if that’s how they wish to speak, let them.

I far prefer their slightly more consistent use of grammar. I love it. When I read the Guardian website, I get a headache and switch to the New Yorker or The New York Times to counterbalance the effect. See, these guys have clear distinctions. They insist on using which only in non-restrictive clauses; that is used in restrictive clauses. Most of their publications still use whom to refer to the object in a sentence.  And something I rarely see in publications influenced by the British is the American use of that for inanimate objects and who is reserved for the rest of us.

Oh, give me an American writer any day. I try to enforce these rules in my own writing and everyday speech. It’s been difficult; I am Afrikaans speaking and I have been using the wrong words for so many years.

I don’t mind American spelling. I find that jewelry looks strangely pretty. What many people might not know is that the Americans kept many of the old British spellings when they became independent. There is also nothing wrong with -ize endings; the British have been using such endings for a couple of centuries I (it is also the preferred spelling of the OED). It’s just not as widespread as -ise endings.

Anyway. I’ll marry the first male writer who uses the subjunctive mood correctly, or at all. Or perhaps not. It might mean I’ll stay single for far too long.

I loathe looking at my old articles. I am ashamed at what I thought were half decent articles three or four months ago. Or even two weeks ago. This happened to me last Tuesday: I opened an article I wrote last month, hoping to find out why one of my colleagues thought it was so great. I struggled to read it because of all the clichés. Well, perhaps there aren’t that many, but it was still painful.

Almost once a week I discover another grammar or spelling rule that I try to apply to my writing. So I browse through my older articles (especially my older blog posts) and correct what I can. This doesn’t always work, though. A different colleague told me it’s bad for Search Engine Optimisation, so she refuses to correct the mistakes I find in my old content.

Yes, it’s sad, but that just means I rarely visit the sites she manages; too many long winded sentences and terrible spelling (mine). But sometimes I have to, especially when I’m writing new content for it. And I cringe and shake my head at how bad I used to be. Though I often blame it on being rushed to write the content… And I thank whoever made me discover grammar books.

But what if I were a 24.com journalist? Or an iAfrica one? They at least have subeditors who should do what they do best: subedit. Right? Nope, folks. Every single day I see gazillions of these silly mistakes. There’s much confusion about ‘judgment and judgement’; ‘ageing and aging’; instalment and installment; and I have also noticed the very funny usage of ‘languishing’ when the more appropriate word would’ve been ‘luxuriating’ or ‘lounging’.

The okes at iAfrica.com and Women24.com must be gatvol of me; every day I send them an email with grammar and spelling ‘suggestions’. Some of these are applied; others not. The word fashionista’s on the Women24.com site implies the possessive form, not the plural form.

So I wonder: are writers and subeditors too busy to read our thoughtful emails (I promise I’m always pleasant when I write to them), or do they not care? Do they know that I am sans degree or diploma, and because of this, they refuse to listen to my pleas for grammatical articles?

I’ll admit this (I was tempted to use ‘concede’ here, but decided admit is more precise), though: I love finding faults in publications. Especially when the average writer or editor is an alleged graduate with a four-year degree who read Jane Austen and Tolkien and now believe he or she can *everyone gasp at the count of three* write.

Oh no. I discovered a list of words that I’ll force myself to use. The British English, that is.

Question: Do AFP and Reuters mind if people alter the grammar and spelling of their syndicated content? Very often, the articles that are found on these sites are badly written and use American spelling: aging instead of ageing and program instead of programme.

If these sites do not mind (I found nothing on the websites of AFP and Reuters that said forbids altering of the content ), does it mean that content producers and content managers are too lazy to change the content? It can’t be that difficult to change a headline or one or two words in the text…

Another question: does it matter that these articles have appalling grammar and American spelling?

Every day, or every couple of days I receive in my inbox the following email: “Pls proofread”. I like to think of myself as the “Sr Copywriter” at work. There is one other copywriter: a young girl. We proofread each other’s writing. I’m very critical of her work. I’m critical of my own work, too, but I want her to be a better writer. I want her to become obsessed with words, language and grammar. So I send her many articles on how to write better.

One of the things I lecture her most on is her use of clichés. And I’m not the only one who dislikes them. Many style manuals urge their readers to desist from using these things and write original prose. But slang, Americanisms and clichés are almost unavoidable. Am I being unfair to expect her to write original ‘copy’? Am I expecting too much from a 21-year-old (though she might be 22)? Or is age irrelevant? I spent some time reading the Economist Style Guide tonight and I realised just how little I know. And just how many Americanisms I use in everyday speech and writing. Railway station – I’ve never used that, ever. Being Afrikaans, I was brought up on ‘train station’. (I only recently discovered that ‘brought up’ is preferable to ‘raised’ or ‘growing up’. ) Perhaps ‘train station’ is no Americanism as the Economist wants us to believe; it’s South Efrican, I’m sure. Not even my British pals use ‘railway station’…

Where does ‘one draw the line’? How many clichés should be avoided at all costs and how many of them are allowed in one’s writing? Should one always aspire to write even better prose than that found at The New York Times? Or is it OK to write as one pleases?

These style manuals all preach the following: “clichés are tired sayings and your readers will tire of reading them”. But I wonder if readers do tire of reading hackneyed expressions. Do they care? Do you care?

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