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Some musings on language

Posted on 2nd January 2018

Please forgive this slightly self-indulgent blog post looking at language. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately and I think that there are enough connections to editing and proofreading to make it a worthwhile topic.

As many of you might know, I am currently in Latin America, and I am busy trying to improve my Spanish once again. I have a GCSE in Spanish, albeit one done in 9 months in my first year at A-level college (i.e. aged 17, to distinguish from the US version of college), but considering it took four years to get the equivalent qualification in German, I think it's fair to say the course was aimed solely at passing the exam and didn't have much depth to it. Since then, I have mainly learned my Spanish in situ, on the road, though I have done a few week-long courses, one in Buenos Aires in 2008 and another just recently in Nicaragua. Pete (my husband) has done the same courses, and has been much more diligent at independent learning, using Duolingo and grammar notes, though he doesn't have a GCSE in Spanish and never learned a language beyond GCSE level. I dabbled with a beginner's course in Japanese (I recall very little but it was fun at the time) and have a degree in German and though that doesn't directly help with Spanish, it has taught me quite a lot about learning a language and how I approach using language, which is what I shall waffle on about here...

The reason for this post really stems from the pain Pete suffers in Spanish compared to me. I would argue he has a better grasp of Spanish grammar than I do, and I think he knows more words, but he has that common adult affliction of not wanting to get things wrong, so he tries to work out what he's going to say first, but by the time he's got to that point, the conversation has moved on. I, on the other hand, am more inclined to just say what I think will work and worry about the double entendres, misunderstandings or just outright errors afterwards. Pete looks confused if he doesn't understand something, whereas unless I am really not following but feel like I am understanding enough to follow, I fake it 'til I make it. What I do want to emphasise here is that I am writing about spoken language, and the grammar and correctness of that in any tongue is always more fluid in this form. Within the first two weeks of my year in Germany as part of my degree, I had one of my big light-bulb language moments: I was told that though I was using the future tense correctly, I sounded odd, because people just don't use it in everyday chat – we tend to use present tense and mention the day/time. I realised that it was better to focus on content rather than the finer grammar points. A caveat here is that I do have the building blocks in place, and they are important regardless or whether it's spoken or written language, formal or informal.

I went on a walking tour recently and the guide was fantastic, with very fluent English. But she regularly got her verb endings wrong, or just missed off certain stems. I knew exactly what she meant though, and it didn't affect my understanding at all.

I have written a blog post about trying not to be a grammar pedant and my time back in Spanish-speaking countries reminds me of the importance of this, both with understanding locals' English and me knowing what to focus on in my Spanish.

How does this relate to editing and proofreading?

As mentioned above, this all relates to the spoken language, and unless I am in a formal English teaching situation or someone specifically asks me to correct any errors they make, I will not correct anyone's speech. As an editor and proofreader though, it is obviously my job to correct the written word, but even this comes with different extents. If I am tasked with proofreading an article written by a non-native speaker, I will make sure the content is clear and understandable but if the author has a certain style, I won't change that. As long as the content is not wrong, I won't change it. If I am asked to edit the article, I might reword for style or to make things clearer, even if the original wasn't wrong per se. But here's another caveat: a journal article is usually written in formal language and therefore the language needs to be clear and (for want of a better word) correct. In a novel though, especially in dialogue, the language is more informal, and often might be outright wrong. If I'm editing or proofreading fiction and a character regularly uses incorrect grammar, I will check with the author that it's intended and then just focus on making sure the language says what the character intends to say, even if the grammar isn't in line with conventions (that's my longer way of avoiding using the word correct).

I like to think my knowledge of English grammar is very good – I'd have issues as an editor and proofreader if it wasn't. As many other writers say, you need to know the rules before you can break them. But there's a time and a place for worrying about the finer points, and I still think that the key purpose of language is communication, to get your point across. If you're speaking to someone, that can of course be enhanced with body language; I have recently, some might say finally, got to grips with past and future tense in Spanish, hopefully now stored in my long-term memory, but in 2008, when travelling around South America, I tended to point forwards when talking about the future and over my shoulder when talking about the past. It was crude and basic, but it worked! When writing, there are no visuals to help out (unless you can draw well and quickly!) so more of the basic grammar rules are required, but even then, the purpose and audience will affect this: how many social media posts nowadays flaunt the grammar rules and use text speak and emojis? But you wouldn't use that language in a thesis or corporate document, and that's where a professional editor can help.

To put this into my own context, I shall continue to take a confident approach with my spoken Spanish, aiming to get my point across even if it's not correct. If and when the time comes that I have to write something, I will be sure to get a professional to help make sure that my language is clear and concise.

Written by Kate Haigh.